The decision to deny the renewal of previously approved personalized licence plates was embarrassing and defied common sense, Premier Dalton McGuinty admitted Wednesday as he overruled the Ministry of Transportation's bureaucrats.
The ministry came under fire for denying Rev. Joanne Sorrill of Whitby, Ont., new copies of the "REV JO" vanity plates she has used for 19 years - a decision Mr. McGuinty said he just couldn't accept.
"Every once in a while governments do things that bring themselves into disrepute; we can also do things that make ourselves outright laughable, (and) this is one of those instances," Mr. McGuinty said prior to a Liberal cabinet meeting.
"When it comes to this licence plate that had been out there for some 19 or 20 years, the decision not to reissue that is not sensible. We're going to change that to make sure that that woman gets her licence plate."
A government review panel determined the letters "REV" could denote an "alcoholic, cooler-type beverage" of the same name, and denied the plate on the grounds it could be construed as promoting drinking and driving.
"Every once in a while common sense is actually important, even in government, and it's just not justifiable to refuse to re-issue a licence plate, especially one that had already been issued," said Mr. McGuinty.
"It's really tough to mandate common sense . . . but we need to be reasonable and practical and pragmatic and common-sensible about these kinds of things."
Mr. McGuinty's reversal of the ministry's policy means anyone who forked out $237.30 for personalized licence plates - and is willing to pay $94.20 for a new set - will get them with the same combination of letters and numbers they used before, even if their renewal had been rejected by the ministry.
That means Peterborough resident Russell Henry will be able to replace his aging "HVF8TH (have faith)" licence plates, despite having being told by the ministry they were unacceptable.
But Suzanne Fitzgerald of Sarnia still won't be able to buy new plates for her father this Christmas that she wanted to read "BUTCHY39" - combining his nickname and year of birth. The plates were rejected on the grounds "butch" is a term sometimes used to describe lesbians.
Ms. Fitzgerald and others may have better luck next year after the province sets new rules for personalized plates.
The government will appoint a special panel to review vanity plates and come up with new guidelines early in 2008, said Transportation Minister Jim Bradley.
"I think the last time there was any significant review of the criteria was 2001, and I'd like to get some outside advice on what the criteria should be," Mr. Bradley said.
"I think that makes sense because, obviously, there are a number of people who are unhappy with the present criteria, or the application of that criteria."
Mr. Bradley defended the nine-member review panel that makes the decisions on vanity plates, insisting they have a tough job and that their work "is a difficult science."
But the Opposition said the entire vanity plate issue was a distraction from the real problems facing Ontario, especially the economy, and said that's what Mr. McGuinty should be worried about and acting on.
"I can't believe that early in (this) stage of a new government that we're talking about licence plates," said Conservative critic Peter Shurman.
"This province is facing an economic crisis over the next two to three years, and that's what should be the primary duty of this cabinet, not who decides what licence plate is going to go on somebody's car."