Everybody has an opinion about Kathleen Wynne’s surprise election victory in Ontario. According to some experts (mostly at the National Post and in the West), the voters of Ontario are a bunch of morons. We irresponsibly rejected the path of fiscal responsibility and doubled down on the reckless wastrels who led us down the path of economic ruin. Thanks to us, our province is the drunken sailor of Confederation.
Other experts (mostly at the Toronto Star) see it differently. The wise voters of Ontario have sensibly rejected the Tea Party-style politics of destruction and embraced an enlightened approach to economic management. Invest to grow! Justin Trudeau is ecstatic, and Stephen Harper had better watch out.
My opinion is that voters aren’t that nuanced. They voted for the gang they thought would screw things up the least. The ballot question wasn’t about policies. It was about safe hands. Kathleen Wynne persuaded them that despite the ball-and-chain of the Liberal legacy, her hands were a whole lot safer than Tim Hudak’s.
There’s a lot to be said for such a clear-cut outcome. Ms. Wynne will not have to court the NDP to stay in power. When showdown time comes with the unions – as it will – she will have a freer hand to behave firmly.
Another plus is that the Conservatives will have to start over. The old Mike Harris gang is finished, and good riddance. Their message was as awful as their leader. If you’re selling fiscal discipline, you also have to sell the upside – as well as the sense that you can manage through the tough times. Tim Hudak failed on both counts. All he offered was the prospect of certain chaos, and who wants that?
Ms. Wynne will now have to perform a neat trick. She will have to implement her left-wing budget and then start governing from the right. She will have to start persuading the people of Ontario that although they are accustomed to jam yesterday and jam today, there will be a lot less jam tomorrow. I do not know how she will accomplish this. She will have to keep some campaign promises and break others. She will have to enforce her promise to hold the line on public-sector wage costs (good luck with that), and she will also have to find what are known euphemistically as “new revenue streams.” This means raising taxes on hard-working people exactly like you. Surprise!
There are two unpleasant truths about Ontario’s economy that nobody mentioned during the election. First, politicians do not have a magical ability to create jobs, and most of the factors that have created hard times in Ontario (such as the decline of manufacturing) are mostly out of their control. Second, economic growth won’t bail us out. Low growth is the new normal. Blame demographics. New workers barely outpace new retirees and immigration can’t make up for that. As Douglas Porter, the Bank of Montreal’s chief economist, says,“Get used to it.”
Ms. Wynne has the personality traits of a good high-school principal: steady, consensual, pragmatic. But can she be strict? We shall see. Strictness is out of fashion, yet it will be essential if Ontario is to avoid the wrath of the bond raters. And that means conflict. If she does her job, she can look forward to teachers’ strikes and tax revolts. In fact, she can expect to be reviled by almost everyone.
As for Justin’s happy dance, not so fast. The biggest election issue these days – especially for the swing voters in Toronto’s suburbs – isn’t who has the best policies, or which scandal led the news last week, or even who has the most inspiring vision for the future. It’s who you can trust not to screw things up too much. Everything else is incidental.