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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Can Dalton McGuinty morph into Mr. Mean? Add to ...

Thanks to Don Drummond, the smart economist with the impeccable reputation, we now have a detailed blueprint for restoring fiscal sanity to Ontario. The choice is clear: Either we get a grip on our finances, or a kid with red suspenders will show up and downgrade the province’s credit rating.

There’s just one problem. The likelihood that the Ontario government can do what Don Drummond says it has to do is approximately zero.

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Dalton McGuinty got elected three times because he seems so nice. All he ever promised was good things – good things for kindergarteners and postsecondary students, for teachers and solar-energy producers. He was Premier Dad. He even gave us Family Day. He said Ontario was the most prosperous and progressive place on Earth.

Well, it’s not. It’s the rust belt of Confederation. And now Ontarians need a Mean Dad. We need someone who’s willing to make the Harris years look like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We need someone who is willing to alienate all of Mr. McGuinty’s core supporters – the teachers, nurses and government workers he worked so hard to keep on side. Mr. McGuinty is constitutionally unable to enrage and betray them. Besides, he has already declared that all-day kindergarten is untouchable.

The Premier has not primed the public for austerity. Instead, he has plied them with candy and ice cream, which they now regard as entitlements. According to a Forum Research poll this week, 53 per cent of respondents want to keep all-day kindergarten, and 57 per cent want to keep the new tuition grant for postsecondary students. Austerity is someone else’s problem.

Mr. McGuinty does not want to end his career as Mike Harris, the premier whose name is synonymous with hardball tactics and bitter labour confrontations. Even today, decades later, teachers cannot utter his name without loathing. The vile Mr. Harris cut provincial spending by 4 per cent in his first term. To balance the books by 2018, in real per capita terms Mr. McGuinty will have to cut by the equivalent of 16 per cent. Mr. Drummond accurately said that cuts of such magnitude are “unprecedented in postwar Canada.”

When Mike Harris was elected premier, at least people knew what was coming. The province was in rotten shape and he had a mandate to set things right. He was also lucky. The world’s economy was on a roll, and Ontario’s revenues soon shot up. Mr. McGuinty is not so lucky. The world’s economy has flat-lined, and he can’t count on growth to bail him out.

Mr. Drummond has come up with hundreds of recommendations for cost-cutting. Most of them will be excruciatingly hard to implement. They are not simply about restraining pay. They require fundamental reforms to deeply entrenched work practices and rigid professional boundaries. Every affected group – all the public-sector workers in the province, to say nothing of seniors with their Lipitor prescriptions – will fight like cornered rats to protect their turf. No appeals to the broader public interest will persuade them to sacrifice what Mr. Drummond says they must. Besides, if kindergarten is exempt, then why not them?

Education – the Premier’s pet portfolio – provides a snapshot of the challenge. Mr. McGuinty’s aim for education was to buy labour peace and improve outcomes. Noble goals, providing you can contain costs. Ontario did not. Over the past decade, student enrolment shrank by 6 per cent, but education staff grew by 24,000. Most of those are non-teaching jobs. The combination of increased funding and declining enrolment means that per-pupil funding has soared by 56 per cent – from $7,201 to $11,207. Special education funding alone went up by $893-million, or 55 per cent. Fourteen per cent of Grade 12 students spend an extra year in Grade 12 – for free. Teachers’ entitlements include up to six months of unused sick days when they retire. Teachers’ retirement benefits will have to be reduced. And so on.

Not surprisingly, teachers unions have already started to bite back. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has pronounced the recommendations “extremely confrontational,” and warns that if implemented, they will do irreparable harm to our children.

Health care is even worse. The status quo is almost impossible to change. Ask doctors if pharmacists should be allowed to prescribe drugs, and they’ll go ballistic. I once asked a room full of family doctors why I needed to see a doctor (instead of, say, a nurse-practitioner) to be diagnosed for a simple urinary tract infection. They were aghast. What if I had cancer? Multiply this example by a thousand and you’ll start to understand how hard it is to reform health care.

“The built-in bias for the status quo reflects the reality that the various parts of government are understood, defended and changed mainly by those who benefit from their existence,” wrote economics writer Robert Samuelson. “What’s sacrificed is the broader public good.”

As for why politicians would rather give in than fight, the answer is obvious. “We know what we have to do,” one beleaguered European politician said. “ We just don’t know how to get re-elected after we do it.”

So keep an eye out for the kid in red suspenders. If Dalton can’t shake things up, he will.

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