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Ontario Hansard - 20-September2012

Mrs. Jane McKenna: It's my pleasure to rise today to speak to Bill 50, An Act to amend the Ambulance Act with respect to air ambulance services. Let me say at the outset that it has been incredibly enlightening being here in the House over the last 10 months or so to get a close-up view of the controversies boiling around Ornge. I would like to commend the dedicated efforts of my colleague from Newmarket-Aurora and the member from Nickel Belt.

Once a poster child for the province's health care thinking, it has become cemented in the public's mind as a poster child for all the worst practices of this government. Watching the minister's footwork and listening to her wordplay has been especially instructive. To hear her tell it, she was little more than a patsy bamboozled by forces beyond her control. This from the head of the very government ministry that helped construct this house of cards.

The minister's words on the new performance agreement are especially fascinating. I find it somewhat astounding that when this government was constructing its 2005 performance agreement with Ornge, they couldn't seem to agree on the matter of performance. The government didn't think to integrate measures that would ensure that the performance metrics of this agency were tracked at all to ensure that it was always delivering the best possible care for Ontarians. To listen to the Minister of Health tell it, that's just the way things kind of turned out. If you only had the minister's talking points to listen to, you might be convinced that the entire Ornge debacle was some kind of fly-by-night operation that hoodwinked the province. But of course there are other accounts.

Speaker, it is extremely hard to look on Bill 50 as anything other than a wag-the-dog reaction to the Auditor General's scathing indictment of the agency and the government that was supposed to oversee it. Both documents were released the same day, after all. Bill 50 is not as constructive a reaction as you might hope for. It's not proactive in the right spirit. It seems like it was created as a tool of deflection before anything else. This government has been getting hammered over the parade of scandals at Ornge for months, Mr. Speaker-months. It's not as if they lacked advanced warning; they had been getting red flags in their faces for months if not years before their scandal broke open on the front page of the Toronto Star.

Even after releasing his 2011 annual report, a damning 460-page doorstop that catalogued the mismanagement and free-form spending sprees of the government, the Auditor General had to double back to Ornge so that his staff could map out the enormity of what had gone wrong-another 42 pages. Things got bad, and then things got worse. I guess you know the tune. So here we are trying to bolt the door after the horses have bolted.

The minister always takes great pain to pay tribute to the men and women on the front lines of Ornge, and I would like to salute them as well. It's certainly not their fault that they were set adrift by this government. They went above and beyond, making the best of whatever they were given. I have enormous respect for the professionalism, expertise and composure of Ontario's first responders and front-liners. The pilots, the paramedics, the engineers, dispatchers and administrators at Ornge should not become collateral damage of this government's mismanagement. These individuals hold our communities together whenever and wherever the fabric of our communities is strained, frayed and torn by suffering and tragedy.

I would like to thank the whistle-blowers at Ornge who stood up for patients and Ontarians when the ministers would not. Without their courageous disclosure, we would only have learned a fraction of what we know now. Without them, the abuses and the indulgences might have carried on without restraint, and this agency could have strayed much further into the fog.

Yet despite all of that, or perhaps because of that, the bill before us does not seem to attach much real value to whistle-blowers. In fact, the legislation arguably reins in whistle-blowers by failing to extend across-the-board protection to all individuals. The message that the government sends is that it's fine for some employees to be whistle-blowers, just not all employees. It's okay for whistle-blowers to reach out to some people in the name of protecting the public interest, but not others.

When you place restrictions on this kind of disclosure, you turn acts of conscience into thought crimes. How shameful is that, Mr. Speaker? It certainly speaks to a certain kind of alliance to transparency and accountability. It captures a prickly defensiveness and stubborn resistance to inspection. It almost suggests, dare I say it, a certain degree of moral cowardice. Anything less than comprehensive whistle-blower protection is simply a camouflaged muzzle law.

This is the government's mask slipping again, just as it did a couple of summers ago around the secret G20 law that led to a massive violation of Ontarians' civil rights, just as it has around any number of thin government bills that do more to perpetuate the Liberal spin machine than promote the well-being of Ontarians.

Ironically, what Bill 50 does is underline the failures of this government and its Ministers of Health. I say "ministers" because this mess has been curated by three separate individuals who occupied that office. They are each uniquely flawed, and yet they share one thing in common. They stood idly by, were blind to the red flags and deaf to appeals. There is no reason to believe that amended legislation or Febreezed performance agreements will change those fundamental failures of oversight.

Yet these ministers had their heads in the sand, completely out of touch with this critical component of the most resource-intensive ministry of the entire government. They didn't think to question, couldn't be bothered to use the tools at their disposal, indulged the worst and naively hoped for the best: that nobody would find out, that nothing would go catastrophically wrong.

When we talk about the excess at Ornge, we should not just be talking about an unthinkable waste of precious resources and the haphazard management of a critical link in our health care sector. There was also an excess of entitlement.

Despite the defensive posturing of the Minister of Health and the detached internal dialogue we've seen from some of her colleagues, the fact remains that this government had every authority, had the tools needed to wade into this organization and get it sorted out. We've heard numerous times during this debate that the Minister of Health who presided over Ornge had the power to intervene at any point to stop the circus, to bring the sideshow to a halt and restore balance and discipline. We've heard legal opinion that under article 15 of the original 2005 performance agreement, as well as the Independent Health Facilities Act-again, Mr. Speaker, there were clear and repeated warnings around Ornge, warnings about a dark whirlpool of financial irregularities; awestruck accounts of sky-high executive salaries; grave details about operational shortcomings that put the lives of staff and patients at risk. All of it was brushed under the carpet by some of the highest-ranking members of this government. It's shameful, Mr. Speaker-shameful.

Where was this leadership years ago when the seeds of this scandal were first scattered on the wind? And where is the leadership now? Is Bill 50 really the best this government can muster? Obviously committee work will tune things up, but as a starting point, Bill 50 is sorely wanting. It seems to point to the fact that this government has not truly absorbed the lessons of its scandal, which is a scandal in itself.

We have logged enough time together in this House to have a fair bit of shared familiarity when it comes to Ornge. We should all be able to agree that we want to fix it once and for all. If and when this bill goes to committee, it should be amended to reflect a wholesale commitment to transparency and accountability.

Open it to independent inspections by freedom-of-information law. Afford the Ombudsman oversight and investigation powers over Ornge. Demonstrate to a shocked and skeptical public that this government is worthy of their trust, that we hold their best interests paramount. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Second reading debate deemed adjourned.

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