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The Ontario Trainwreck Continues While its Citizens Slumber

Will Ontarians ever wake up?

By Bruce Stewart Created: October 31, 2012 Last Updated: November 14, 2012
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The aftershocks of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s resignation continue to reverberate around the province.

The key question is, will this bestir Ontarians from their slumber?

Almost uniquely amongst the provinces, Ontarians don’t place their province first. In most of the other provinces it’s the norm to hear about the province first and the country second.

For too long Ontarians have gone along ignoring Queens Park.

The typical Ontarian puts what happens in Ottawa ahead of what happens at Queens Park.

Also, in Ontario, what happens locally in the municipality tends to outweigh what happens at Queens Park.

For most of us in this province, “Ontario” comes dead last.

The 2011 election turned on that very thing. The NDP ran a campaign filled with style, but short on substance. The PCs ran a campaign about side issues. The Liberals ran on “wait for the Drummond Report” (the Liberal government had commissioned economist Don Drummond to produce a report on how the government could balance its books).

The province was already in deep water economically, with the bond ratings agencies circling like sharks in a tank ready to rip Ontario’s credit rating apart; yet the voters apathetically let their parties get away with it all yet again.

When McGuinty padlocked the legislature on October 15, grumblings about prorogation started, but they’ve been muted. Although Ontarians have no idea when their MPPs will return to work, interest in the subject has mostly died.

There’s a meme amongst the pundits that’s starting to form that when the next election comes—probably soon after the legislature resumes next year—the three parties this time will have to run on substantive platforms rather than side issues or style.

That will only be true, of course, if the people of the province wake up and demand it. So far, coffee shop chatter would suggest that’s not going to happen.

Ontario has an acute financial problem. Even with all the zero percent contracts being put into the broader public sector, the provincial deficit still remains deep. The province suffered one debt downgrade earlier this year and remains on credit watch for another. Each one increases the interest the province must pay on its outstanding debt (currently about half as large as the federal government’s total debt and growing at one and a half times Ottawa’s unfunded bills) and takes money from health care and education (along with all the other provincial programs).

Ontario has an acute infrastructure problem. The Greater Toronto/Hamilton Region is choking on its own size, and there’s literally no money available to build out transit or roads. This, in turn, is stifling the provincial economy. Meanwhile there’s no money for the North either, where the Ring of Fire awaits serious exploitation.

Even though Ontario is now a “have not” province and will receive over $3 billion in equalization payments, it still pays more to Ottawa than it gets back. No wonder Ontario’s public services are often amongst the worst in the nation. Despite all the money the McGuinty government poured into health care, for instance, there are still serious shortfalls, queues and investments required.

When the legislature resumes, it’s likely the proceedings to declare the energy minister, Chris Bentley, in contempt of Parliament will be put to one side. Not only has McGuinty indicated he’s leaving and not running again, but so too has his finance minister, Dwight Duncan, as well as Bentley.

But that doesn’t mean the mismanagement and waste surrounding eHealth Ontario, ORNGE, or the power plant cancellations that were the leading items in committees, Question Period, and the daily news all summer and fall have been solved. Neither, if the provincial budget is ever to be brought into some degree of balance, can Ontario continue with a broader public sector as large as the one it has.

Does the province need 630-plus agencies, boards, commissions, crown corporations, and other bodies all requiring executives and support staff to augment its ministries? The focus up until now has been on a few where things have blown up into scandals: the broader picture remains undiscussed, by voters and parties alike.

Other policies of the McGuinty era, like the Green Energy Act, receive bad press—especially in rural ridings—but no real discussion about the problems the act was designed to tackle is taking place; and without that the ability to choose wisely will remain off the table.

For too long, Ontarians have ignored Queens Park. However, the reality of this century is that almost everything that matters for the way people live is a function of the provincial government.

The earthquake, if the province’s citizens decide to really pay attention to Ontario politics, will be profound. Just don’t bet on it happening soon: it will probably need to get worse before that wake-up call is heard.

Bruce Stewart writes the “Eye on Ontario” column for Troy Media. Article courtesy TroyMedia.com

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