In the last two weeks, I’ve been on the CBC’s Metro Morning twice to talk about the Ford Government’s relocation of the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) to Ontario Place (OP). The first time was after the Government released its business case supporting the move and the second after the Auditor General’s report criticizing the move. In this post, I’ll bring together my commentary about both the political process and the merits of the move. There is much to say, so it will be a bit longer than my usual posts.
Making the Sausage
The relocation, playing out before us in real time, is a troubling example of how the Ford Government’s legislative sausage-making (a la Bismarck) is undermining our standards of due process and transparency.
Consider the timeline: the Ford Government introduced the New Deal for Toronto Act (NDT) in the Legislature on November 27 and released its supportive business case for relocating the OSC two days later. The NDT Act is a very unusual piece of legislation. It begins with a paragraph committing the Government to “continue to discuss” with the City uploading expressways, funding the TTC, and supporting housing and homeless programs. But a government hardly needs to legislate a commitment to continue ongoing discussions. The introductory paragraph sugarcoats the Ford Government’s real intent: 17 pages about the redevelopment of Ontario Place, empowering itself to ignore municipal planning, environmental assessment, and heritage restrictions, as well as indemnifying itself against legal action.
The Ford Government allocated this power-grab a week of debate in the Legislature, without committee hearings, taking the final vote on December 5, the day the Legislature rose for the winter break (which will run until February 20 next year). The next day, the Auditor General presented their report, which contained a chapter on the OSC.
This timing is no coincidence. The Auditor General always presents their findings to the Government sufficiently in advance of publication so that the Government can provide responses that are included in the report. The Ford Government therefore knew that this report was critical of its plans for relocating the OSC. Had these findings been publicly available, they would have given the Opposition significant ammunition to use in the debate.
Dissecting the Business Case
Involving over a year of work by a team of consultants and public servants, the business case includes an 80-page overview and 17 supporting appendices. It contrasts a refurbished OSC at its Don Mills site with a new science centre at Ontario Place and finds that the former would cost approximately $600 million more over 50 years, primarily due to higher construction and operating costs. It argues that there are economies of scope in locating major recreational and tourist facilities (Ontario Place, Exhibition Place, CN Tower, Rogers Centre, AGO, ROM) downtown and that the Don Mills site would best be used for housing.
Early on, it admits that “securing a publicly owned cultural anchor, such as the OSC, could be an important addition to counter negative perceptions of the commercialization and privatization of this waterfront public asset”. So political optics are involved, and relocating the OSC can be seen as an exercise in scientific “greenwashing.”
It contrasts doing maintenance and refreshing exhibits in Don Mills with new exhibits and a modernized program at Ontario Place. But it doesn’t consider consolidating or restructuring the Don Mills site. Thus, the consultants focus entirely on designing a leading-edge Fourth Wave science centre at Ontario Place but are willing to let the Don Mills site remain as an outdated Second Wave science centre.
One of the qualitative factors the business case assesses is “neighbourhood fit.” It confirms that the Don Mills site is a gathering place for the local community, has strong existing relationships with local schools, and is easily accessible by foot, bicycle, and transit. It also admits that Ontario Place is less accessible to its adjacent community, and it only refers to the “emerging demographic” of, and “opportunities” for, that community Advantage, Don Mills.
The cost-savings predicted in the business case, on a relative scale, are hardly overwhelming. $600 million over 50 years is just $12 million per year. The Ford Government’s annual budget is over $200 billion. As a pre-election goody it cheerfully eliminated motor vehicle licence fees at a cost of $1 billion annually. The Auditor General, however, questions even this finding because the business case includes no contribution by the OSC to the Ontario Place parking structure that is expected to cost over $600 million. The Auditor General also finds that the business case hadn’t budgeted for the cost of managing the development of the OSC at Ontario Place, especially if it is a public-private partnership. These omissions wipe out the cost advantage touted in the business case.
The Auditor General’s report produces a detailed timeline for government decision-making showing that by mid-2020 the Ford Government was favouring the relocation option. The Auditor General’s staff contacted representatives of the City, school boards, and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority, and learned that the Ford Government was, at best, economical in its consultations with them.
Finally, the business case argues that relocating the OSC will draw more tourists while the Auditor General’s report argues that it will reduce the number of Ontario students because it is more remote from the 401. In my view, all visits are not created equally. Tourists leave their money, period. Visits to the Science Centre may inspire our students to emulate John Polanyi, Ursula Franklin, Chris Hadfield, or Mike Lazaridis – that is to aspire to STEM careers.
Democracy Dies in Darkness
Perhaps because Doug Ford himself regards it as a personal legacy project, redeveloping Ontario Place around Therme Spa, the OSC, and a Live Nation entertainment space is a top priority of the Ford Government. With the City silenced and supportive legislation in place, what can we expect next? Taking the 95-year lease to Therme Canada as precedent, it is likely that Infrastructure Ontario will call for proposals to design and build the OSC at Ontario Place and will execute a long-term lease that it will refuse to make public.
Governments do their work using a variety of tools, which include legislation, regulation, and agreements with unions, other levels of government, or foreign governments. Legislation and regulation are debated in public and these agreements, though negotiated secretly, are then made public. In contrast, governments often keep partnerships and long-term leases, like those for Highway 407 and the Therme Spa, confidential, arguing that they contain proprietary information regarding the private sector partner. One wonders if the real reason for this confidentiality is that governments want to protect themselves from accusations of inept negotiation, favouritism, or corruption. But, if it wanted, a government could tell bidders that the final agreement would be made public. With transparency, we would have deals that better serve the public interest. Indeed, a successor government could legislate that all government contracts with the private or non-profit sectors be made public in their entirety, without any redactions.
In the case of the relocation of the OSC, the Ford Government undertook little consultation with key stakeholders and rushed through legislation before the release of an Auditor General’s report it knew was critical. It is now likely to develop the new science centre using an agreement that will be kept secret. The masthead of The Washington Post, “democracy dies in the dark” is entirely applicable to this story. It is past time to shine a light on all the Ford Government’s plans for Ontario Place.