After four years the Liberal Party has accomplished much, but several unresolved problems threaten to undercut its legacy.
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 07, 2007
With the coming election, the Ontario Liberal Party is working the hustings in earnest. Premier Dalton McGuinty recently came to Hamilton to meet with the Hamilton Spectator's editorial team (we at RTH are trying to maintain a stiff upper lip over being slighted ;) to ask how the government can help.
Despite all the bad press it continually attracts, the McGuinty Liberals have done a decent job of governing over the past four years. Unfortunately, a lot of what they've done doesn't make for exciting news copy.
Consider the Greenbelt, Places to Grow, Good Places to Learn, new protection for heritage buildings, the Gas Tax transfer, expanded powers for cities, the Greater Toronto Transit Authority (GTTA), new incentives for renewable power generation, "smart" hydro meters to introduce market-based pricing to electricity use, and so on.
I wish they went further with some initiatives, especially with Places to Grow, which sets the minimum intensification rate at 40 percent instead of, say, 80 percent (Toronto is committed to 100 percent), but after years of deregulation and cronyism, they laid the groundwork for more sustainable growth over the next few decades.
They've also started the job of shifting power and responsibility to cities, which could plan for growth if they weren't labouring under an archaic governance structure. The previous government treated the cities like infants, unilaterally amalgamating Toronto and Hamilton with their respective suburbs despite widespread opposition.
The predictable result in each city has been an ineffectual, binary council split between urban and suburban blocs with conflicting interests. Indeed, it's hard to escape the conclusion that this was the intent all along.
They even created a study group to investigate alternatives to Ontario's first-past-the-post voting system. It presented its recommendations, and the upcoming election will include a referendum on adopting a system of proportionate representation
The big issues the Liberals haven't tackled, and they're real disappointments, are the following:
This contradicts Places to Grow, which seeks to intensify existing neighbourhoods, as well as the government's Good Places to Learn framework, which reconceives schools as integrated community hubs.
Downloading these costs to cities was a transparently cynical move by the previous government to force reductions in social spending by moving it to the level of government least able to pay for it.
Social service costs are cyclical, rising just as city revenues fall, and cities have less latitude than provinces to go into cyclical debt to cover them.
They're also unevenly distributed across the province. Hamilton and Toronto have among the highest need for social services, but whereas Toronto received a large transfer in the last provincial budget to cover this, Hamilton proportionally received much less.
Four years later, the Nanticoke coal-fired power plant still spews air pollution, stinging eyes, choking lungs and aggravating heart disease. This is one of Ontario's great shames in an age when air pollution and the looming threat of climate change hang heavy on us all.
The shame runs deeper. Because the government has maintained an artificially low electricity rate, Ontarians use power without regard for its cost.
As a result, Ontario buys peak power from dirty coal-fired plants in the Ohio Valley for up to 30 cents a kilowatt-hour while we pay 5.7 cents a kilowatt-hour to run our air conditioners all day.
Much of the air pollution from those plants blows into Ontario anyway, contributing to a public health emergency during summer smog days.
The province is rolling out "smart" hydro meters this year that will charge variable rates for power. This should help to constrain energy consumption, encouraging conservation and pushing non-essential uses off peak hours.
The government also plans to develop more wind and solar power generation; but the lion's share of new funding - $40 billion - will go into new nuclear power plants instead of aggressive conservation measures and renewable, decentralized power sources.
This represents a tremendous wasted opportunity to build a sustainable economy.
The business and right-wing, faux-populist media savage the Liberals for their insufficient deference to corporate interests, while the alternative and left-wing press savage the Liberals for not doing enough to address poverty and environmental problems.
It remains to be seen whether Ontarians have gotten over their exhaustion with Tory rule under Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, which alienated large swaths of the province and parlayed a $3 billion deficit into a $5 billion deficit over eight years of continuous economic growth. (What is it with these "fiscally responsible" conservatives, anyway?)
The Liberals can brag that they balanced the budget in less than four years, but with the economy humming along below most people's radar, it's difficult to say how much emotional impact this will have with voters.
That, ultimately, is the biggest problem: the Liberals have spent the past four years running a sound, reasonable, pragmatic government that was a bit wishy-washy at times but dedicated itself consistently to finding a middle way between competing interests instead of flashy, partisan politics.
Sometimes, as Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes famously observed, "A good compromise leaves everybody mad."
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