Race for Pink Palace unleashes mix of policy, politics, and the inevitable ‘wild card’

Andrew Perez

The Public Policy and Governance Review asked current and former students to write a series of posts on the major policy events of the summer as we begin the fall semester. Today is the third of the series, setting us in the timely context of the Ontario provincial election. 

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*The views expressed are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect those of the Public Policy and Governance Review
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The Backdrop

Campaign buses hit the road in Ontario this week in what will be the third election for Ontario voters in twelve months. Next month’s Ontario vote comes on the heals of an anti-incumbency tsunami that ravaged some of the province’s largest cities last Fall; it also follows a historic federal election result last spring which manifested itself in a structural realignment of our political order. Add to that a turbulent global economy, an increasingly unpopular mayor in Ontario’s largest city, Toronto, and the untimely death of Jack Layton – resulting in a spike in NDP support – and you have a rather remarkable backdrop to the October 6th election.

The Platforms

Liberals

            Two days before the 2011 Ontario election began in earnest, Mr. McGuinty released his party’s blueprint for a third consecutive mandate. The Ontario Liberals are making tuition grants the centrepiece of a campaign platform anchored in helping Ontario families cope with strained finances. The policy document – ‘Forward. Together.’ – boasts 46 promises at a cost of $1.5 billion in 2015/2016; the most expensive platform item: a 30 per cent reduction in post-secondary education tuition fees that would save students $1600 a year, at a cost of nearly $500-million a year.

The release of the Liberal platform provides the first indication that Mr. McGuinty will spend the duration of the campaign going head-to-head with the opposition parties on the same turf they have staked out – consumers’ pocketbooks.  But the Liberals will do so by adhering to the self-described Education Premier’s vision to engender a well-educated, highly skilled workforce. For instance, included in the platform is a $7,300 annual cap on the amount of debt post-secondary students could incur, bolstered by an expanded interest-free grace period on student loans for recent graduates struggling to find work.  Mr. McGuinty has also pledged that full-day kindergarten will be implemented in all schools by 2014.

And while the centrepiece of the platform hinges upon equipping the younger generation with the human capital required to excel in a knowledge-based economy, the McGuinty Liberals are also explicitly appealing to two other important demographics – the elderly and new Canadians.  These two rapidly growing demographics will be key ingredients to the future well-being and prosperity of Ontario residents.  The Liberals have responded by providing more health support for seniors, including increased home visits and the rollout of a seniors retrofit tax credit, an annual credit of 15 per cent (up to $10,000) on repairs that allow seniors to stay in their homes longer. More controversially, the Liberals have earmarked $12 million to provide a tax credit to employers who hire immigrants for their first job in Canada. The tax credit will apply to new Canadians who live in Ontario and have been in the country for up to five years.

Progressive Conservatives

In contrast, Mr. Hudak’s platform, ‘Changebook’, is promising new spending and tax relief that totals $4-billion a year by 2015/2016.  But on the fiscal and social policy fundamentals, Mr. Hudak has all but endorsed Mr. McGuinty’s agenda.  For example, when it comes to the health and education sectors – arguably the two most important silos within provincial jurisdiction – Mr. Hudak has adopted the premier’s spending plans. Like Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Hudak says he will be able to cough up enough efficiencies elsewhere without affecting government services. He also parrots Mr. McGuinty’s fiscal plan that will gradually eliminate the province’s $16.3 billion deficit and a return to budgetary balance by 2016/2017. Finally, on arguably Mr. McGuinty’s two most contentious policies – the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and health care premium – Mr. Hudak excoriates Mr. McGuinty as the “tax man,” but professes he will abolish neither tax (except the HST on electricity). To do so would deepen Ontario’s already fragile fiscal position.

And so in an attempt to differentiate himself with his chief rival, Mr. Hudak is pressing various hot buttons, including putting provincial prisoners into chain gangs and cracking down on newcomers allegedly taking advantage of the health and welfare systems. While these hot button issues might garner votes from a capricious electorate, these issues stand at the periphery of what the province does.  And then there is what Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson dubs ‘the mathematically challenged Tim Hudak’, a not so subtle reference to the Progressive Conservative leaders’ refusal to tell voters anything remotely resembling the truth. Mr. Hudak’s central challenge arises out of his commitment to spend more on health and education, which together consume approximately 75 per cent of all government spending in Ontario.

With no available lever at his disposal to curb rising payments on the debt, the PC leader has conveniently promised to reduce spending on what remains by two per cent yearly, arguing this can be done by not filling public sector vacancies as they arise. As Jeffrey Simpson notes, “this is bad math, cleverly disguised.”  Moreover, even if the intended reductions were made – and the reductions are not possible without chopping or scaling back on entire programs – the reductions would still amount to less than what Mr. Hudak would need to balance the budget by 2016/2017.  Add to that a commitment to a series of tax cuts and spending initiatives and Mr. Hudak’s plan to return to budgetary balance on a strict timeline amounts to pure fiction.

New Democrats

Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats released their outline for Ontario’s future last June – ‘Plan for Affordable Change – is a platform expedient on pocketbook issues, thoughtful in some areas, but lacking overall in long-term vision. Rising gas prices? An NDP government would roll back part of the HST over the next four years and regulate the big oil companies by capping prices at the pump to prevent profiteering. Rising hydro and heating costs?  The NDP will eliminate the HST from your monthly bills. But Ontarians would be wise not to dismiss such policies as a mere ‘wish list’ on the part of New Democrats; buoyed by recent public opinion polls that place the NDP in a respectable third place, Ms. Horwath’s platform could serve as a future shopping list if Ontario ends up with a minority government reliant on NDP support.  In fact, the platform is fully costed, adopting the Liberals’ fiscal plan as its base, including the same timeline to eliminate the deficit by 2016/2017.

The difference, however, is that the NDP would roll back the Liberals’ corporate tax reductions, capturing nearly $2-billion in forgone annual revenue to finance its campaign promises. The substance of this policy is not beyond reason – the federal Liberals made a similar commitment in the federal election of last spring. With the exception of the manufacturing sector – which would continue to enjoy a tax rate of 10 per cent – the general corporate tax rate would be restored to 14 per cent. Interestingly, like the Progressive Conservatives, the NDP have chosen not to scrap the HST all together or eliminate the controversial health premium. In aggregate, Ms. Horwath is advancing a vision that appeals primarily to individual interests over collectivist goals, a marked departure from previous NDP manifestos.

The Politics

Ontario’s governing Liberals hope historic trends will keep Premier McGuinty from becoming history on Oct. 6.  But with a tough re-election battle against two newly reinvigorated parties, the Liberals believe past voting patterns suggest a third consecutive mandate is within their grasp. In a mid-summer memo sent to Liberal supporters, the premier’s campaign guru counters an onslaught of daunting polls that suggest Mr. Hudak will become Ontario’s next premier. Don Guy, the architect of Mr. McGuinty’s massive majority victories in 2003 and 2007, argues it is a myth that federal election outcomes predict provincial election outcomes, attempting to quell fears that the recent collapse of the federal Liberal Party will not have an adverse effect on Mr. McGuinty’s prospects this fall.

“The opposite is true”, says Guy. “Federal routs are typically followed by provincial wins. The federal Liberal rout in fall 1984 was followed by a spring 1985 provincial Liberal win. The federal PC rout in fall 1993 was followed by a spring 1995 provincial PC win,” he wrote. The last time we had a spring federal election followed by a fall provincial election was 1963. In that 1963 election, Pearson and Robarts took equal shares (Pearson 45.8 per cent; Robarts 48.9 per cent) of Ontario votes and formed government,” he wrote, referring to Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Progressive Conservative Premier John Robarts.

But perhaps the biggest piece of conventional wisdom the veteran campaign director tried to dispel was that most premiers who have tried for a third term have found it much harder and failed. “Fact: No one in Ontario ever tried it and failed. Premiers Mowat, Whitney, Ferguson, Frost, Davis tried. All succeeded. Five for five,” wrote Guy. That’s a reference to the electoral success of former premiers Oliver Mowat, James Whitney, Howard Ferguson, Leslie Frost, and more recently, Bill Davis.

Indeed, the latest public opinion polling results show the gap rapidly tightening between the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties, with one poll placing the Liberals way out in front of Mr. Hudak’s PCs. A new Nanos Research survey released earlier this week shows Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals now ahead with of 38.1 per cent of voters, relative to 34.7 per cent for the Progressive Conservatives. Meanwhile, Andrea Horwath’s NDP – which Mr. Hudak is counting on to pull left-of-centre votes from the Liberals – came in at 24.3 per cent, leading some pundits to suggest the momentum from the federal NDP’s surge has dissipated.  On the question of leadership, 29 per cent of those surveyed picked Mr. McGuinty as the best premier, 25 per cent picked Mr. Hudak, and 15 per cent chose Ms. Horwath.

But where the question of public opinion becomes intriguing, is how the party leaders are trusted on the major issues facing Ontario. According to the Nanos Research survey, there is not a single issue on which Mr. McGuinty is less trusted than his opponents – including even taxes and electricity costs, which are widely perceived to be his two biggest vulnerabilities.  Meanwhile, ‘Premier Dad’ also enjoys a considerable advantage on health care – the issue that Ontario voters say is most important to them – along with the environment and education.

The ‘Wild Cards’

Much of the narrative over the previous two years has been one centred around the notion that Mr. Hudak has merely to avoid committing an indictable offence and the premier’s third floor corner office is his. And yet elections quite often don’t unravel as they appear they should on the day the writ is dropped, as was witnessed in the last federal election.

For one, voters resent being told it’s over before the race has even begun. Secondly, it would seem the Liberal pitch along the lines of ‘stopping the Tory hat-trick’ – Conservatives in control at Toronto City Hall, Queen’s Park, and Parliament Hill – might just resonate in a province that often likes a provincial check on federal power. Thirdly, it remains to be seen what impact a turbulent global economy will have on the Ontario electorate. Would a major blip in the economy undermine Mr. McGuinty’s central message that he represents stability in uncertain times or would it allow him to advance the argument – much like Prime Minister Harper has – that it’s no time to hand over the reins of power to a mere rookie. Finally, how will the recent popularity of the federal NDP – and the outpouring of support for the late Jack Layton – play out in the province where enthusiasm for Jack Layton could be tempered by memories of the Bob Rae government.

On several occasions in recent history, electorates have been yearning for change, only to decide to park their vote with the familiar incumbent after sizing up their opponents and finding them wanting. The fact remains Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath remain unknown and untested quantities for the vast majority of Ontarians; the campaign and debates will be crucial to both rookie leaders as many pundits predict a three-way race is now underway in Ontario.  So fasten your seatbelts, and hold on – it’s going to be remarkable race to the finish line on Oct. 6.

Andrew Perez is a second-year student in the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, and long-time member of the Ontario Liberal Party. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and previously worked for several elected officials on Parliament Hill, Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., and most recently at Queen’s Park in Toronto.

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One response to “Race for Pink Palace unleashes mix of policy, politics, and the inevitable ‘wild card’

  1. here in Ontario, I don’t know how many of your viewers have seen these INCREDIBLE nebumr of ads, run by something called the Working Families’. Ads ATTACKING the Conservatives, without EVER disclosing that it’s 10 to 15 union bosses in a room, with access to MILLIONS of dollars, doing WHATEVER they want to attack the Conservatives. There’s a lot of allegations around the extent to which the Working Families’ is involved with the Liberals. The Liberals passed a piece of legislation in 2007, that I’d say looks like custom designed legislation, to enable the Working Families’ to spend an UNLIMITED amount of money, OPPOSING a political party, while creating limits on those who support a party, and on political parties themselves Well that was real educational eye-opener for me way out here in Alberta. So this ridiculously tilted political playing field you guys have, means the fix is in to a much greater extent than I realized. I suspect it will come down to Hudak besting McGuinty in the debates.

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