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Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Ajax, Ont., on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Ajax, Ont., on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Ontario election, part 2: Sense and nonsense from the Conservatives Add to ...

Over four days, The Globe editorial board will look at the options facing Ontarians. On Friday, June 6, we’ll endorse one of those parties.

In Tuesday’s leaders debate, Tim Hudak self-deprecatingly promised, “I am not going to be the best actor on the stage tonight.” It was false modesty: The Progressive Conservative Leader was easily the best performer. His Liberal rival, Kathleen Wynne, appeared flustered at times and even confused, but Mr. Hudak came across as calm and in command of his material. Out on the campaign trail, it’s been the same story, with Mr. Hudak looking comfortable, running on a platform that is easy to explain and whose main goal of making government smaller is a genuine expression of his own beliefs. And yet for all of that, the product Mr. Hudak is peddling has consistently come under attack, and with good reason: It is filled with serious defects.

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Yesterday, we looked at the state of Ontario’s government and public finances, as voters in Canada’s largest province head to the polls on June 12. Ontario’s government may be the most efficient (or least inefficient) in Confederation, but it needs to become even more so. And the deficit, though neither out of control nor the most important issue facing Ontarians, needs to continue to march down. Today, we consider the platform of one of the two leading parties: Mr. Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives.

The Conservative platform is easy to explain to voters because it is built around a simple idea – government is the main obstacle to Ontario’s economic success. That idea is expressed in simple slogans featuring round numbers. The Million Jobs Plan. One Hundred Thousand Fewer Government Workers. Cut Red Tape By One-Third. And the latest, rolled out in Tuesday’s debate: a promise from Mr. Hudak to resign if he fails to create those One Million Jobs over eight years. Other than political gimmickry, what’s the point of pledging to keep your word, or step down in 2022?

A series of economists has pointed out that the million jobs plan suffers from whopping errors in basic arithmetic. For example, one job in existence for eight years is counted as eight jobs. Whoops. (Interestingly, 100,000 public sector jobs eliminated for eight years are not counted as 800,000 lost jobs.) The plan also assumes, correctly, that in a modestly growing economy, more than half a million new jobs will be created even if a pet rock is premier and a garden slug is finance minister. It also assumes some things that are as hard to disprove as they are to believe, such as that 96,000 jobs will be created by “breaking traffic gridlock” in the Greater Toronto Area.

Then there’s the promise to cut red tape by one-third. It’s a fine advertising slogan, and it will surely please the Conservative base, but it’s not an actual plan to govern. It should worry voters. Of course government should be more efficient. Of course regulations that impede more than they help should be reformed. But that’s not what the Tories are promising. In fact, according to another one of the Conservative campaign gimmicks – an “Oath For Ontario,” to be administered to Conservative cabinet members – future Tory ministers will agree to not raise taxes, to “not spend tax dollars for political benefit” and to forfeit a portion of their salary if they do not meet the “red tape targets assigned to me.” A mandate from on high to cut one-third of government regulations, or else, is a profoundly imprudent idea.

Then there’s the deficit. The budget must be brought back into balance, but the Conservatives turn it into a bigger bogeyman than it is. They propose to bring it down in two years; the Liberals and the NDP say they can do it in three years. Give the Conservatives credit for promising some pain. Deduct points for promising more pain than is necessary. Mr. Hudak also insists that reducing the size of government, and cutting back on government spending, will lead to more private sector investment and faster economic growth. Ms. Wynne is closer to the truth when she says that, at least in the short run, it will do the opposite.

And yet Mr. Hudak’s party does have a number of good ideas – from ending subsidies to business, to axing the 30 per cent college and university tuition grant (which the Liberals cooked up to win re-election in 2011), to saving significant money by slightly raising class sizes in elementary and high schools, to lowering staffing levels in the Liberal-created all-day kindergartens. Mr. Hudak borrowed most of those ideas from Don Drummond’s Liberal-commissioned report on right-sizing government, and he deserves credit for being willing to embrace Mr. Drummond’s more politically challenging recommendations – which the Liberals have shied away from.

Mr. Hudak has also been eager to go after public sector workers, perhaps too eager. Aside from the 100,000 job cuts, he’s promising an across-the-board wage freeze. But at least he’s been clear about where he stands. Ms. Wynne, in contrast, has been unwilling to spell out what cuts she might make in order to achieve her own ambitious deficit targets. And those Liberal targets, though slightly more modest than those of the Conservatives, are ambitious.

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