Just days away from the provincial election on October 6th and most are projecting it to be the closest election in Ontario since 1985. As new polls are released on a close-to daily basis, the most recent results show the gap between the two leading parties having narrowed to a statistical tie, along with the third place party taking a considerable chunk, close to 25%, of the popular vote.
While the polls can be considered with varying levels of accuracy, it demonstrates that Ontarians (or at least those polled) are having some difficulty deciding as a majority where we fall within the political spectrum and who we want to entrust with the next four years.
Regardless of the presence of an election, Ontario has some significant trends that are shaping how policy makers and politicians plan out the next steps for our province.
Some factors to consider:
- Ontario’s net population, currently at 13.3 million, is growing steadily at approximately 1% each year.
- Ontario’s dependency ratio (meaning the ratio of the population aged 0-19 and 65+ to the population aged 20-64) is projected to grow from 59.1% to 73.1% in the next 15 years.
- Urbanization of Ontario and the pressures on our metropolitan centres will continue – with the percentage of Ontario residents living in the GTA currently sitting at 47.4% with this number only projected to increase.
- Ontario’s overall unemployment has recently declined to 7.5%, however new Canadians have higher levels of education on average than their Canadian-born counterparts but their unemployment rates are significantly higher. The failure to recognize the qualifications and experience of immigrants costs the Canadian economy $3.42 billion to $4.97 billion per year.
- Income inequality gaps and poverty issues have major effects on the productivity of an area and the demands on the social system, with estimates showing about 20% of healthcare spending in Canada can be attributed to socio-economic disparities. 
The characterization above clearly illustrates the strain our social and economic system is facing, and although some may not like to think of it in such concrete terms, decisions between items A and B become much more challenging, when item A is tax cuts for middle-income families, and item B is investments in health care for the elderly.
When examining these realities, one can become sympathetic to the pressures that our government faces and the various priorities it is forced to balance. In times when the private and non-profit sector are asking for further investment and all ministerial areas could use more money, one has to wonder about the realism of peoples’ expectations considering the fierce demands to reduce government resources are stronger than ever.
Recently I had the opportunity to ask a question to a few provincial candidates from ridings in the GTA at the CBC Metro Morning Candidate’s Debate. My question was centred on the difficult choices that our government representatives have to make. While for many, it is our collective hope that elected officials demonstrate strong leadership when picking and choosing which priorities get attention or funding; scores are left wondering, how often do our public priorities give way to populism? A party or government that makes a publically popular decision or avoids one that is generally out of favour could be taking the path of least resistance, or at least the path to more votes; however it will be determined, sooner or later, if the best interests of all Ontarians and the prosperity of the province were left out of the equation.
Consequently, there is much more to be lost if we continue to reward politicians for suggesting such short-term schemes. To plan for the long-term and think beyond Election Day or even the four year term requires boldness, foresight, and leadership; which becomes increasingly difficult when an election campaign demands the answers to: What have you done for me? What will you do for me? And how can you quantify it for me…now!? The urgency for short-term rewards and gains is counterproductive to what parties should be offering voters, that being a well thought-out vision and platform.
Unfortunately even the glorified debate limits the opportunity for honest dialogue on major issues of importance. Time never allows for the recitation of talking points and fair debate on topics like the sustainability of the health care system, the effectiveness of environmental regulations, or the spending cuts required to reach a balanced budget. During election time, we are often barraged with anecdotes about Norm from North Bay and Betty from Burlington, which should not qualify as substantial enough evidence to support a policy or governance decision. Yet often during elections, it is these small examples that can distort the direction of a policy that may or may not be meeting the broader agenda of an societal challenge.
So while election campaigns may be predisposed to letting minor issues dominate the discussion, having voters lose sight of the bigger picture would be far more devastating. Like for our government representatives, hard decisions lie ahead in the lives of many Ontarians. Nonetheless we ought not to become focused only on short-term ideas and instant relief. When heading to the election poll, voters ought to base their decisions more on progressive planning than pocketbooks; more on the best interest for the province, than personal benefits.
Considering voter turnout in the 2007 provincial election was just over 50% of 8.4 million eligible voters, the actual representation of the entire Ontario population in an election is quite distorted. Bearing in mind that Ontario’s total population was 12.8 million in 2007, there were over 8 million Ontarians, including children and youth under 18 and newcomers to Ontario, not able to represent their interests in the election. If all voters only voted with themselves in mind, how would our political representation and government look? Although we may never fully know the answer to that question, the voting population ought to recognize the power each vote holds and responsibility they have to use it wisely.
Far too often the decisions made at the ballot box are based solely on one’s life situation. Far too often, voters find themselves ineligible for a specific program, and therefore disqualify a party based on the ‘it’s not helping me’ analysis, rather than considering what community members, work colleagues, or unknown Ontarian it may benefit.
Good governance cannot be envisioned, planned, and executed with a four year timeline. For perspective, even most small – medium-sized organizations (considerably smaller than the province of Ontario) usually have a strategic plan that extends beyond a four year period. Therefore, in the absence of any official long-term plan for Ontario, the responsibility becomes that of our citizenry, specifically the voters, to provide the long-standing stewardship our province needs.
While there are many important aspects to consider for the foreseeable future – including the Canadian Health Transfer negotiations in 2014; the implementation of full-day kindergarten across primary schools in Ontario; and the carrying out of the Green Energy Act, or if repealed by a new government, plans for Ontario’s next green energy strategy – October 2015 should not be the ‘best before date’ parties are strategizing towards. We need our political parties and leaders thinking, planning, and leading beyond the next election cycle.
The same message goes for our voting population as well; this election is far too serious to only think of ourselves in the interim. The collective must be considered when heading to the polls on or before October 6th. My hope is that voters think of their neighbours, think of their grandparents, think of the owners of the local bakery, but most importantly, think of the province that Ontario should be in 10, 15, 20 years. That is where we are going and it is the best way to conceptualize who we should vote for on October 6th.
To listen to the question and candidates’ answers, follow the link to CBC Metro Morning Candidate’s Debate – September 22nd, 2011:
Video: Begins at 1:18:20
Audio: Click on “A tough decision” (shortened).
Meaghan Coker is a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She graduated from The University of Western Ontario with two degrees, a Bachelor in Management and Organizational Studies and an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.