Needed: A Partnership Transparency Act

The Ford Government is laser-focused on building infrastructure: public transit, highways, hospitals, and of course Ontario Place. Its Ministry of Infrastructure is headed by Kinga Sirma, well known as a Ford loyalist. The Ministry has a major agency – Infrastructure Ontario – and is committed to using public-private partnerships as a key methodology, especially for large projects.

Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

As we have seen regarding the proposed Therme Canada Spa, the Ford Government is very secretive about the terms of these partnerships. Partnerships are the least transparent tool of government. This is deeply concerning because infrastructure is intrinsically long-lived and expensive. The veil of secrecy can be concealing inept negotiation by the government, favouritism in the selection of a partner, and corruption.

The traditional reason given for this secrecy is the protection of proprietary information regarding the private sector partner. Wikipedia’s article on public-private partnerships confirms that secrecy is common and that, even when agreements are made available due to freedom of information inquiries, they are heavily redacted.

Ontario should not accept this status quo. We should attempt to bring transparency to our public-private partnerships. Transparency would expose deals that are not in the public interest – here’s looking at you, Therme Spa – and, once the practice of transparency is well-established, would prevent future governments from making bad deals.

I consider it a certainty that the Ford Government will not increase the transparency of its public-private partnerships. I am therefore writing this proposal for the Opposition parties so that they introduce legislation to this effect. Undoubtedly, the Ford Government will use its majority to defeat this legislation, but the act of introducing it will start a public discussion that could lead to its adoption after the Ford Government is defeated.

The Partnership Transparency Act

What should a partnership transparency act include?

Initially, the act would have to define partnerships. It would likely focus its attention on major partnerships, defined by their scale and the nature of the relationship. There is a whole alphabet soup of types of partnerships, such as DCMF, in which the private sector partner designs, constructs, manages, and finances the facility and the government pays it rent. However, one of the most significant types of partnerships, the concession (Highway 407 and the Therme Spa) doesn’t yet have an acronym.

There are four aspects of partnerships that the public needs to know about.

  1. Selection of the partner. The Government should provide information about all the proposals that were submitted and a justification for its choice.
  2. The complete, unredacted contract between the Government and the selected partner.
  3. Just as financial institutions need to know their clients (KYC), the public needs to know their partners (KYP). It is essential to have complete information about the beneficial ownership structure of the partner. For example, investigative journalist John Lorinc has been examining the ownership of Therme Canada and asking how it would finance the spa; KYP information would readily make available what he has been painstakingly trying to uncover.
  4. To allay the suspicion that political influence was involved in the selection of partners, partners should be required to disclose all political donations by their principals (executives and board members and their family members) both before they were selected and thereafter.

To what time frame would the legislation apply? It should not just be applied to partnerships that are entered into after the act comes into force but to all ongoing partnerships. Thus, it would cover the Therme Canada Spa.

Who would administer the legislation? The best approach would be to create an Office of Partnership Accountability that reports to the Legislature. Perhaps that office would be a part of the Auditor General’s Office. The Office of Partnership Accountability would set and enforce reporting deadlines, hold the information, and make it readily and easily available to the public.

An Ontario Innovation

I have written this post as a public administration scholar with a deep interest in accountability.

I have no training in drafting legislation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my readers does. I am also sure that the Opposition parties have staff with that skill.

The people of Ontario have had severe disappointments with public-private partnerships such as exorbitant tolls on Highway 407 and excruciating delays on the crosstown subway line in Toronto. The Therme Spa appears to be a bad deal for the public and the proposed relocation of the Ontario Science Centre is on course to be its equal.

A Partnership Transparency Act is an innovation that would initially benefit the people of Ontario and then could be replicated in other jurisdictions. Certainly, a worthwhile Ontarian initiative.

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