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Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne releases the party platform in Thunder Bay, Ontario on Sunday May 25, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne releases the party platform in Thunder Bay, Ontario on Sunday May 25, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Ontario election, part 3: Uncertainty surrounds the Liberal platform 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.

At the start of the Ontario election campaign, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives agreed on only one thing: The Liberal budget tabled in early May was a left-wing document. Even many New Democrats agreed, with some prominent NDPers issuing a public letter asking why their party had brought down a Liberal minority government over the most progressive budget imaginable. Liberals and Conservatives are happy to disagree on everything, seven days a week, but on this point each took the same story out on the campaign trail: Liberals = Left. The reason? They’re going after very different voters. That’s why they’re selling voters the same untruth about the Liberal platform.

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In the first part of this four-part series on the Ontario election, we looked at the state of the province’s finances. Ontario’s government, hard as this may be for voters to believe, is the most efficient (or least inefficient) in Confederation, with the lowest per-capita revenues of any province, and the lowest per capita spending. And yet it has to become more efficient, because this year’s projected $12.5-billion deficit, though neither out of control nor the most important issue facing Ontarians, must continue to march down. Yesterday, in part 2 of the series, we considered Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservative platform, which introduces some good ideas – the best of which are Liberal ideas that Liberals have turned their backs on. The PC platform loses points for bad math, hollow slogans (One Million Jobs, 100,000 Public Sector Job Cuts, Reduce Red Tape By One-Third) and unshakeable faith that government is an enemy to be defeated, rather than a necessity that must be improved.

Today, a look at Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal Party.

In this election, the Conservatives have motivated their base by running against what they portray as a bloated, big government, left-wing party. Liberals have almost embraced the characterization, because they are campaigning for votes on the left – voters who usually go NDP. But the story about a left-wing Liberal platform is untrue. Or at least only partly true.

The Liberal platform is an interesting hybrid, including some new spending initiatives. But the program is built on a fiscally conservative budget that promises to balance the books in three years, largely by holding program spending flat – zero per cent annual spending increases – until 2017. Factor in inflation and population growth, and we’re talking about the equivalent of a 3 per cent annual cut, for three years in a row. Most conservative parties would be more than happy to deliver that kind of mild austerity.

If re-elected, will the Liberals make the hard choices necessary to hit those budget numbers?

The Liberals have been in power for more than a decade, and their record, like that of any government in power so long, is marked by a series of what could charitably be called bone-headed spending decisions. The privatization of Ornge. The cancellation of two gas plants in an attempt to win two swing ridings in 2011, which may ultimately cost the province $1-billion. A kooky plan to foster a renewable energy industry, which has been driving up electricity rates for years, infuriating voters, hindering business and motivating the opposition.

At the same time, however, Liberals can claim real accomplishments. For example, health care is by far the largest item in every provincial budget, typically growing at far above the rate of inflation and threatening to swallow the entire provincial purse. Yet over the past few years, the Liberal government controlled spending, and the province is now the country’s per-capita second-lowest spender. They bent the cost curve down without causing chaos; a recent report from the conservative Fraser Institute finds that Ontario is, among other things, the province with the timeliest access to medical services.

To make its budget numbers, a future Liberal government will have to engage in tough bargaining with the province’s public sector unions. Mr. Hudak has insisted that he’s the right man for the job, because the Liberals are supported by many of those same unions. He’s promising a salary freeze for all public sector workers. Ms. Wynne, in contrast, has been cautious about spelling out how she’ll treat them if re-elected. But the May budget offers a clue: it points out that recent public sector contracts have averaged a mere 0.4 per cent annual increase – below what workers are getting in the private sector or even from the federal govenrment. And the Liberals have insisted that, though they will negotiate, they’ll do so within that hard budget envelope. That envelope, as noted above, is supposed to receive no new dollars for three years.

It’s certainly possible that Liberals will be able to bring themselves to play hardball with the unions. It’s also far from certain.

The bottom line is that none of the three leading parties in Ontario is our ideal. All have positives and flaws; reasons for hope and reasons for misgiving. None is a perfect choice. But choose we must. And tomorrow in this space, we will.

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