Ontario Election 2007

Unfinished Business

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

Glaring Omissions

The big issues the Liberals haven't tackled, and they're real disappointments, are the following:

Funding Formula

The funding formula is broken, not least because it starves schools of support staff and has an inbuilt bias toward closing small neighbourhood schools and building suburban school warehouses.

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.

Social Services Costs

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.

Clean, Sustainable Power

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.

Next Steps

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."

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By dangerb (anonymous) | Posted June 08, 2007 at 10:16:36

True, the liberals can brag they balanced the budget in 4 years. Albeit with the largest single provincial tax increase in history under the thinly veiled excuse of funding OHIP. The truth is self evident as all amounts collected under the 'health tax' guise go directly into general revenue tax coffers. I'm sure the emotional impact of that fact still resonates with voters of all political stripes.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 08, 2007 at 10:28:51

True enough, but the only reason the provincial government is having to make up the health care shortfall is that the federal government has been systematically short-changing the provinces since the introduction of the CHST in 1996.

According to the Canada Health Act, the federal government is supposed to pay for half the health care bill, and the federal government is only covering something like 35%, despite running surpluses every year since 1998. The money not provided by the feds has to come from somewhere.

I don't support the tax increase as it was implemented (I would have preferred a smoother and more progressive tax), but I'm not sure what else the government could have done. Continuing to starve the system as the previous government had done was no longer a viable option.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 08, 2007 at 10:38:03

Sorry, one more thing:

I forgot to add that in 2004 the Canadian Health and Social Transfer (CHST) block transfer was replaced by the Canada Health Transfer (CHT), which earmarks money specifically for health care, and the Canada Social Transfer (CST), which covers other social programs.

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By dangerb (anonymous) | Posted June 08, 2007 at 12:00:42

We're in full agreement with the facts surrounding federal funding and the tax increase. What I find egregious is that the province can not account for, nor prove that the revenues collected under the health 'premium' are being applied to the CHT/CHST federal shortfall. As we saw under the Conservatives, it was apparently possible to hide a large deficit behind the general accounting of the province. Keeping that in mind, monies collected for a specific purpose need to be earmarked and segregated at source if constituents have any expectation to see them through to the required purpose. In my opinion the only logical reason to do otherwise (as has been the case in directing OHP payments to general revenue) is to obscure the process and allow the province latitude to report on its budget in, shall we say.. 'a favorable light'.

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By Leonard Baak (anonymous) | Posted June 09, 2007 at 07:01:50

Much of the "inbuilt bias" towards closing small schools comes not from the funding formula, but from Ontario's insistence on running two school systems (public and Catholic separate) serving overlapping jurisdictions.

A move to a single public school system would provide the perfect opportunity to close schools with minimal impact to the communities they serve. Many Ontario communities have both an underutilized public and an underutilized separate (Catholic) school, with one or both threatened with closure. By consolidating those schools into the best of the two facilities, many communities now facing the total loss of one or the other school would still have a community school where all children could attend and where any teacher could teach. Students now facing the prospect of a closure and transportation to a far away community could very well be spared that eventuality if the assets of overlapping public and separate school boards were combined in new school boards with non-overlapping jurisdictions. Such consolidation would also allow the new boards to divest themselves of their oldest and most expensive to maintain properties, freeing up funds to improve classroom education for all children.

A move to one school system would also address the discrimination that sees the members of one faith elevated into a position of privilege above all others. In fairness, Ontario must fund all religious schools equally or fund none. Only the latter option is affordable and would have the added benefit of bringing children of all backgrounds together in an environment of tolerance and mutual respect.

Leonard Baak, Education Equality in Ontario
www.OneSchoolSystem.org

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By heathen (anonymous) | Posted June 09, 2007 at 16:50:14

It is impossible to disagree with Leonard. Different but equal is not a credible defense and it is the thin edge of the wedge.

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted June 09, 2007 at 18:20:02

I heard John Tory saying that his party will provide funding for other faith based schools (if elected). It seems, if anything, that we might be going the opposite route

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By Locke (registered) | Posted June 14, 2007 at 21:58:44

While I have agree with Leonard that two publicly funded school systems does harm create difficulty, I think it important to reiterate the broken funding formula is a more immediate concern.

Let me give an example:

In the neighbourhood where I live both a public and a separate school are at physical capacity. However, the public school which was built in 1914 does not meet the funding formula student capacity despite space constraints necessitating classes in the basement. It should also be noted that Gym is too small to truly meet the curriculum requirements of the education act and the playground can barely handle the current numbers.

So, the funding formula is broken when it comes to older and smaller* schools. I agree, one school system would serve society better and remove the threat of further splintering public funds, but it wouldn't solve anything in terms of how we fund schools.

*By the way, a smaller elementary school these days is less than 600 pupils.

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