IT’S THE first of April so one can’t help wondering: Does the Doug Ford Conservatives take us for a bunch of fools? Last week, as Finance Minister Vic Fedeli was assuring business folks and “the people” about his plans to tackle Ontario’s astronomical $13.5-billion deficit, the province announced it had retained the services of former federal Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver.

The 78-year-old Oliver, a smart and affable sort, was appointed to the province’s arcane-sounding Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO). Another acronym in a sea of government acronyms that “the people” surely don’t know about.

Oliver, who lost his bid to keep his downtown Toronto seat in the 2015 federal election, is to receive an annual stipend of $25,000 for his work with the IESO, according to the Ministry of Energy. That’s not a huge amount of money but, as Fedeli keeps repeating, the province — meaning us — is flat broke.

The IESO is responsible for managing the province’s power system “and planning for future energy needs.” One could be forgiven for thinking that Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One are also heavily involved in that aspect of the business. Nobody likes a third wheel.

A news release about Oliver’s appointment cited his “unwavering commitment to public service.” How touching. But people who volunteer at Thunder Bay’s Shelter House, to name but a few self-less endeavours, also never waver. The difference? They’re not getting paid $25,000.

To be blunt, we have no money. And yet, incredibly, only a short while ago, Ford was keen to pay former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion $150,000 for “advice.” Thankfully, for the taxpayers’ sake, McCallion, who is 98, graciously turned the premier down.

What did go forward though was the appointment of Conservative strategist Jenni Byrne to the Ontario Energy Board. Byrne, who until recently worked in Ford’s office, will take in nearly $200,000 per year while she sits on a board that was already amply served by highly-qualified people with impressive resumes.

It’s worth repeating: Ontario is so deep in the red it’s not even funny. Annual interest on the debt: $12 billion. Again, that’s just for interest. Who else can Ford foolishly put on our dime? Is that $150,000 McCallion declined burning a hole in his pocket?

Last week, as it has done every year since 1996, the government released the so-called Sunshine List — a lengthy catalogue of public servants who earn $100,000 or more. Topping the list is OPG CEO Jeffrey Lyash, whose 2018 pay clocked in at an astonishing $1.7 million and change.

To its credit, the province recently capped the salary of Hydro One’s top manager at $1.5 million. But even that still seems like too much in a province that can’t afford to keep its hospitals fully staffed with nurses, and cuts programs to teach school children about Indigenous treaties.

Though it may be titillating, and occasionally shocking, to learn how much some public-service executives pull in, the publication of such as a list is meaningless if a government can’t balance its books, year in and year out, as has been the case in Ontario of late.

The Sunshine List has become more like an exercise in outing and embarrassing people rather than part of efforts to instill fiscal prudence. The federal government, which is also in financial trouble, doesn’t publish a comparable list; Ontario does, but its balance sheet is also in the toilet. How much does it cost the province to compile the list? Well who cares, right? We’re rolling in dough.

Clawing back the bloated salaries of some public-service managers in mid-stream would only open up a legal can of worms.

When Lyash and his counterparts have retired or moved on to greener pastures, it will be an opportunity to re-evaluate their compensation and find out if someone of equal competence could be hired for a lot less.

Under the circumstances, not giving that a serious try would be downright foolish.

(Originally published April 5, 2019)

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