Ottawa/Queens Park




- Ryan McGreal

I've never been a Liberal and I've never voted Liberal in a provincial election, so this is not a partisan rant. In the interest of fairness, it just needs to be said.

Political parties are not monolithic and the Ontario Liberal Party is no different. When former Premier Dalton McGuinty stepped down and  Kathleen Wynne became the new leader, that represented a significant shift in internal power from the business wing to the progressive wing of the party.

It's true that Wynne was a member of McGuinty's cabinet, but when you're a member of a party, you have to go along with party policy even if you don't agree with it. Politics is the art of the possible, and once Wynne became the leader it became possible for her to do things differently.

The Wynne government has been so much different and better than the preceding McGuinty government that they may as well be different parties which just happen to have the same name. In that sense, continuing to attack Wynne over the inept and scandalous policies of her predecessor (yes, we all know the litany of sins: HealthTaxOrngeGasPlanteHealthAarrgh) seems unfair.

But politics is unfair and the voting public has the right to punish the government in power, even when the government is doing its level best to keep its promises and continues to implement popular, successful programs while balancing the budget (at least this year) and gradually bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Premier Wynne has only been in office since 2013, and for the first 15 months she led a minority government and couldn't do anything. So really, she has only been in power for less than four years, during which time she has kept every promise she made in the 2014 platform.

This government has also been quite solid on the less-sexy and indeed thankless procedural stuff: the Provincial Policy Statement; the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe; amending the Highway Traffic Act to protect vulnerable road users; amending the Municipal Act and Municipal Elections Act to improve civic governance; tackling the OMB; and so on.

And they took a big risk by finally listening to the community of anti-poverty advocates to stand up to the business lobby, stare down the apocalyptic predictions and introduce a significant increase to the minimum wage that is already producing benefits for lower-income workers (and the economy as a whole).

We hear a lot about the size of Ontario's debt, which currently sits at $312 billion, but Ontario has one of the biggest subnational economies in North America with nearly 40 percent of Canada's entire population. When you compare the debt to the size of the economy, our Provincial debt-to-GDP ratio is in the middle of the pack among Canadian provinces.

I know people will bring up the Hydro privatization and that's a fair objection: a lot of people are opposed in principle to the move and see it as a betrayal. Yet even here, Wynne did stick to her platform, which entailed leveraging public assets in order to pay for The Big Move. It's just that Ontarians didn't stop to consider what "leveraging public assets" means when they voted for it.

In any case, this was a no-win situation for Wynne: Ontarians demanded transportation investment but refused every proposed funding mechanism to pay for it. No matter what they did, the Liberals were going to upset a lot of people - including if they wimped out and decided to do nothing.

The entire hydro file has been contentious, to say the least. Hydro rates have gotten significantly higher in the past 15 years - though we are still nowhere near "the highest in North America" - but the government had to play catch-up after decades of neglected investment. Part of that investment was shutting down Ontario's coal plants, which has dramatically improved air quality, eliminating smog days and saving thousands of annual hospitalizations.

And yet, it still may just turn out that the government made exactly the right move with the partial Hydro privatization. As on-site renewables (solar, wind) continue to follow a geometric declining cost curve and battery technology continues to improve, we may have already passed the peak value of a centralized grid. Meaning, the Province may have pulled a brilliant financial move by selling off a public asset just before it starts a long, gradual, inevitable decline in value.

 Photograph by Alain Rouiller

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