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JEFFREY SIMPSON

Ontario election promises: Now you see 'em, now you don't Add to ...

Before Labour Day, pundits and pollsters are wasting their time analyzing politics in Ontario. After that, they can do marginally useful work, because only then will most citizens focus on the October election.

Uncommitted voters, on whom elections usually turn, are more interested in the pursuits of summer than the promises of politicians, and with very good reason. When (if?) these voters begin to pay attention, the election outcome might become clear.

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In Ontario, the summer funny season has featured large doses of the unreality for which most campaigns are known. Here’s a province burdened with a large deficit this year, with deficits stretching longer than anywhere else in Canada. It’s also the province arguably most tied to the U.S. economy, which is barely growing. And yet provincial party leaders have been making spending promises as if Ontario actually had money in the bank.

Given Ontario’s fiscal situation, spending cuts will be the order of the day no matter who wins the election. But no party apparently has the courage to tell voters this truth, and voters can only blame themselves since they don’t seem to want to know the truth.

The Conservatives, at least, are marginally honest in telling voters that, yes, they would make cuts; whereas the Liberals, who have presided over the ballooning of the province’s deficit, are campaigning as if none existed.

The Conservatives’ identified cuts are so limited that, when placed against their spending promises, the financing of their entire platform is a joke. As for the Liberals, they always campaign by showering pledges of more spending on the electorate. And they’re true to form this time. They know they need to rein in their spending, which is why they’ve asked respected economist Don Drummond to review the province’s spending.

Premier Dalton McGuinty and his Liberal candidates insist the shower of promises has nothing to do with the election. How anyone can say that with a straight face illustrates, among other reasons, why so few people of quality want to enter politics, and why so many people are skeptical of those who do.

Not to be outdone, the New Democrats have joined the bunfight of promises, but with a twist. The NDP has moved away from some form of social democracy toward jerky populism, vowing this or that bit of tax relief or spending, adopting the federal Conservatives’ strategy of identifying target groups and pitching precise messages to them.

A classic case of targeted populism and stupid policy is the NDP’s promise to remove the HST from heating oil, hydro and gas. This removal will indeed save consumers a small amount on their bills, while costing a lot for the deficit-laden treasury. It’s a far cry from the kind of redistribution of income and fundamental social change for which the NDP ought to fight.

The NDP’s health-care policy consists of such bromides as cutting in half emergency wait times, a pledge easy to make and next to impossible to achieve without huge investments inside hospitals and beyond. It’s a bit like the stuff Jack Layton had been peddling in his last campaign: training large numbers of new doctors and nurses without indicating where the money would come from.

All parties campaign rather recklessly on health care, mostly promising to spend more than the other parties. The McGuinty government has actually reduced health-care increases for this year to a shade more than 3 per cent, an admirable accomplishment that can’t endure given such pressures as inflation, aging population, increased medical use and drug costs.

Anything will be possible in the Ontario election. The Conservatives could win using the oldest message in politics: time for a change. The Liberals might win a majority by scaring voters about the Conservatives and spreading money all over the place. The NDP might do surprisingly well, given the decline in Liberal popularity and the Conservative platform’s flight from reality.

Didn’t we hear a lot in federal politics before the last election about the spectre of a Liberal-NDP coalition? We shall see in due course after Labour Day whether Ontario might head in that direction.

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