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Clark's comms director in hot seat at Ontario power plant scandal investigation

Ben Chin looked at ease in front of the camera, just like he did during a 14-year TV career that included time as the weekend anchor of CBC's National newcast.

But on Sept. 26 he wasn't delivering the headlines. The communications director for Premier Christy Clark, hired last December to help rescue her sagging fortunes, sat in a Victoria studio for 90 minutes of questioning by an Ontario legislature committee trying to get to the bottom of that province's power plant scandal.

After working as a senior advisor to Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty for three years, Chin became vice-president of communications for Ontario Power Authority in April 2009. He was with OPA when it awarded a 20-year contract to Calgary-based TransCanada to build, own and operate a 900-MW, natural gas-fired power plant in Oakville in September 2009. Chin was also there when the government cancelled the project 13 months later. McGuinty's Liberal government also cancelled a 300 MW power plant in Mississauga during the fall 2011 election.

Opposition politicians accuse the party of saddling taxpayers with at least $585 million in bills from the cancellations, so that the Liberal Party could win two key ridings and cling to power, albeit as a minority government. The power plants were supposed to improve Ontario's electricity supply after the massive Aug. 14, 2003 blackout exposed weakness.

The province's speaker, auditor general and information commissioner have weighed-in with reports not flattering to the cause of the Liberals, now led by Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Chin wasn't the first McGuinty Liberal operative with a B.C. connection called to testify in front of the Justice Policy Committee. On Aug. 13, McGuinty's former chief of staff and three-time campaign manager Don Guy appeared in-person in Toronto. Guy, the key strategist behind Clark's May upset, denied the power plant cancellations were his doing. The "idea was in the premier's head" before the election, Guy maintained.

Peter Tabuns, the NDP energy critic, didn't buy it. He complemented Guy for being "a very capable and skilled campaign manager" before slamming him. "You're not credible as an errand boy," Tabuns said.

While Guy was defensive, Chin came across as affable, even toward Tabuns. Tabuns defeated Liberal Chin in 2006 in the Toronto-Danforth riding. Chin's toughest questions instead came from Progressive Conservative John Yakabuski.

"It was based on the decision of the government to cancel the plant, not the recommendation of the Ontario Power Authority, the decision of the government," Yakabuski said to Chin. "So people were going along blindly, myopically determined that this was going to be built, and then the decision made by political operatives to cancel the plant. Well then if that is the case Mr. Chin, would it not be those people who should be held responsible for this decision?"

Chin responded: "I think that period of time, the government was constantly challenging the need for the plant and why it was being built, and they were constantly looking for alternatives, we were strongly advising them that this was the best alternative and this was the optimal location... We argued for that vigorously and then all of a sudden we had different numbers. Which changed the game. We weren't able to vigorously argue against building the plant after that."

Yakabuski contined: "At the end of the day, a decision is made to build this plant in Eastern Ontario, nowhere near the power need, nowhere near the power need. Could you have supported that… building this plant in Napanee, how wrong was that?"

"I don't know what factors went into it," Chin said. "I'm not a planner, I would ask you to ask the head planner for the OPA."

Yakabuski: "You've offered some opinions here, give me an opinion on that one!"

Chin: "If I gave you an opinion it would be pretty worthless compared to his. I don't know how to answer that"

Committee chair Shafiq Qaadri, an Etobicoke Liberal, banged his gavel and it was over. Chin was free to return to his B.C. reality, where it's all about building liquefied natural gas plants.

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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