National Post (Latest Edition)
Ontario prepares to vote for least worst option
Writing for Maclean’s this week, Bob Rae defended himself against various calumnies winging their way around the election campaign in Ontario, where many voters are seriously considering the notion of a second NDP government. The silliest accusation being made is Premier Rae somehow “caused the recession” of the early 1990s. Rae quite rightly dismissed this as “nonsense.”
No one with two brain cells to rub together seriously believes that, though. More interesting, especially in light of this campaign, was Rae’s profession of surprise at having to deal with the recession he didn’t cause.
“Governing taught us the lesson that there are often no easy choices,” he wrote. “There were limits to what we could tax, and what we could borrow.”
Well, indeed. But is it asking too much to expect a prospective premier to know such things in advance? To have tested his platform against various possible realities? As Rae noted, the economic downturn had already begun by the time the 1990 campaign kicked off. The threat of a serious recession was all over the news.
It wasn’t just economic reality that thwarted Rae’s designs. Public auto insurance was a totemic issue for New Democrats; it was one of Rae’s most important promises. But they made a managerial hash of designing the system, and by the time they had a plausible one mocked up, the cost savings to drivers turned out to be negligible. The recession didn’t help: the insurance industry won some rare sympathy by warning of thousands of job losses, two-thirds of them women. But efficiency is supposed to be a feature of public insurance, not a bug.
Anyway, they ditched it. Dismayed partisans started to lose faith. By the end, Rae was as reviled by many of his former supporters as he was by Bay Street.
This could have been foreseen. Setting up massive public programs is hard, complex work that often spirals out of control — something Ontarians know all too well. (Never mind electronic health records; this is a province that buggered up the issuing of plastic health cards.) And recessions happen — but you would never know that from 2018’s campaign platforms.
The NDP and Liberals promise to run deficits in these good economic times, 10 years out from a recession, and to return to balance based on projections of endless economic growth. The Tories haven’t said much about returning to balance at all.
The NDP promises new pharmacare and dental care programs, both of which would be complicated undertakings with many inevitable unintended consequences — but which are thoroughly defensible and plausible undertakings. Less so: they promise to spend no more than $4.4 billion to buy back 313 million Hydro One shares in just eight years. Unfortunately, 313 million Hydro One shares are currently worth $6.1 billion, and sellers might expect quite a bit more than that.
The Dippers have admitted there’s a $1.4 billion error in their costing, and the platform is based on Liberal budget numbers both the Financial Accountability Office and Auditor General consider far too rosy. Yet they are a paragon of thoughtfulness and transparency compared to the PCs. For weeks leader Doug Ford strung us along with the promise of a “costed” platform, then finally gave us an uncosted platform. He insists it is costed, because all of the promises have costs next to them. Perhaps we should have asked for a “revenued” platform as well.
“Ontario doesn’t have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem,” the platform tells us. It is word for word what Rob Ford said about Toronto City Hall when he was campaigning for mayor alongside Brother Doug, who boasts to this day of all the painless savings they achieved. Indeed, gross city expenditures fell relative to inflation for three of the four chaotic years the Fords were at City Hall. Total savings: $186 million, or roughly 0.5 per cent. It was far from painless, by the way. Ford has promised to get eight times as much out of Queen’s Park, with no jobs lost, and even that won’t add up to the $8 billion Ford assures us his outside auditors will find.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, meanwhile, seems desperate to reveal herself as a total fraud to as many Ontarians as possible before oblivion finally claims her. She practically begs for ridicule by boasting of beer and wine sales in supermarkets while issuing apocalyptic warnings about offering them for sale in corner stores, and by deploring Horwath’s ties to a labour movement whose support she had obsequiously (and expensively) courted until about 20 minutes ago.
The Globe and Mail chipped in Thursday with an extraordinary story involving flibbertigibbet former cabinet minister Glen Murray allegedly threatening Marolyn Morrison, at the time the mayor of Caledon, on behalf of a developer. Morrison says she told Wynne, who promised she would follow up. Morrison says she never heard anything back. She didn’t know the developer, Solmar, had contributed $20,000 to Wynne’s leadership campaign in 2012. A coincidence, surely.
So is this it? Is this really what Ontario politics has to be — a contest of ideas in which “half-baked” is the best we can hope for? A litany of promises we would be wiser to take figuratively than literally? Should we just live with the expectation that some percentage of these initiatives will end in cartoonish waste, corruption, scandal and failure?
The NDP, at least, is being true to its social democratic roots; it’s reasonable to assume they would at least try to do what they’re promising, though Horwath ran twice before as a centrist. She, too, may have suffered Rae’s cruel epiphany about choices being hard and taxation and borrowing having limits.
Anyone who tells you they’re sure what Premier Ford would do is either lying or delusional: the City Hall precedent isn’t good, but Ford’s beliefs simply aren’t firm enough to be sure how he’ll react in a totally new political environment with a caucus beholden to voters who were promised big spending and no cuts. A more chaotic version of business as usual isn’t an impossible outcome of a Ford win, but you’d be a fool to bet on it, or on anything else.
It’s often said Mike Harris’s Tories, at least, did what they said they would — at least in broad strokes. They balanced the budget in five years, cut program spending, reintroduced the health care levy, cut taxes, reduced the welfare rolls by half. That’s the sort of agenda good governments tend to pursue in good economic times, from which Harris benefited. Yet many Ontarians still cross themselves when they hear his name: the Harris legacy is widely associated with cuts to health care and education, with the Walkerton disaster, and with a generally bastardly style of politics.
Broadly speaking, what Harris did had to be done: the province had run deficits in 15 of the 16 years before he took office, totalling $77 billion. Real per capita expenditures rose 35 per cent over that period. Debt servicing went from 9.5 per cent of total expenditures to 15.
Debt is much less expensive to hold these days, but that doesn’t mean it always will be. At some point, someone is going to have to do the same kinds of things again. Yet it seems almost inconceivable anyone will ever again run a campaign promising to do them, let alone win that way.
Imagine how much people would hate Harris if he had promised a chicken in every pot. And that’s basically what all three major parties are offering Ontarians in 2018. Voters have little way of knowing whether they have the chickens to back it up, or even any intention of acquiring and distributing the chickens.
This is not the politics Ontario deserves. But someone has to win, and voting for your idea of the least worst option is a perfectly noble act — so long as it’s done with open eyes and a skeptical mind. Ontarians are being taken for fools, but they don’t have to roll over and like it.