“Whether it’s on the farm, or on the factory floor … Whether it’s a starting point or your dream … It’s a job,” the rookie Premier intones over images of Ontarians at work and with their families at play. “I’m Kathleen Wynne, and it’s my job to create more of them.”
It’s a lovely little ad that the governing Liberals launched this week, at least insofar as production values go. But its message, echoed in Ms. Wynne’s public appearances of late, is at best premature.
There has been much in her first few months in office about which Ms. Wynne could plausibly boast. She defied expectations by getting a budget passed; she energized a government that seemed exhausted under Dalton McGuinty; she took a few tentative social-policy steps toward her goal of a “fairer society”; and she restored some goodwill with organized labour, if one considers that a good thing.
At some point in the past month or so, though, Ms. Wynne and her advisers seem to have decided that Ontarians don’t want to hear about all that, so much as a plan for economic growth. So that’s what she’ll talk about, even if she doesn’t yet really have one.
Politicians get too much credit or blame for employment trends over which they usually have little control, and Ms. Wynne is not the first to lay dubious claim to the “job creator” label. But rarely do they try to do so before announcing the policies with which they’ll at least try to establish favourable conditions for others to create those jobs.
To date, Ms. Wynne’s most substantive economic-development policy has been a $295-million youth jobs fund. The bulk of that money will go toward hiring incentives for employers – a sop to the provincial NDP that even many Liberals don’t actually think will achieve much. They’re somewhat more confident about the $100-million of it pegged for mentorships, research and development and pilot projects.
Her most significant plans going forward revolve around infrastructure upgrades, in particular raising new revenues to pay for improvements to the Greater Toronto Area’s transportation system. She deserves credit for that, since other politicians haven’t had the guts to seriously discuss how to pay for an obvious need. But the investments would at best reduce GTA travel times by a few minutes, preventing business conditions from getting worse more than significantly improving them. And with adding three subway stops in Scarborough seemingly shaping up as one of the big early projects, politics as much as economics may be determining these investments.
In any event, making it easier to move around the GTA would have limited impact on the parts of the province suffering most economically – in particular the Southwestern Ontario towns that have taken on a Rust Belt feel since manufacturing dried up. Under Mr. McGuinty, the Liberals tried to bring opportunity to those places by establishing a green-energy industry. Ms. Wynne has rightly backed off what proved to be a failed effort, but has not yet decided what if anything to replace it with.
As for helping businesses grow outside the province’s borders, there is chatter about more narrowly focusing international trade efforts on certain industries, rather than the catchall China and India missions that Mr. McGuinty favoured, but it’s not clear what that means. And the Economic Development Minister who should be spearheading such efforts, Eric Hoskins, has been all but invisible.
A case could be made that merely steering the government out of deficit is the best way to create favourable business conditions. But Ms. Wynne seemed to reject that argument during a news conference this week, telling reporters that Ontarians “want a sharper focus on jobs than austerity.”
As of now, most of the ideas for how to get those jobs seem to be coming from the opposition. The policies proposed by Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives – “right-to-work” labour legislation, tax cuts, lower energy rates for manufacturers – have not yet found an audience, and Liberals would dismiss them as simplistic and counterproductive. But for those paying attention, they’re currently about the only game in town.
Ms. Wynne may well join in soon, and she is not to be underestimated. But it’s a bit dangerous to set a bar before telling Ontarians how she plans to reach it.