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Don Drummond, former chief economist of TD Bank Financial Group. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Don Drummond, former chief economist of TD Bank Financial Group. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

An optimistic prescription for Ontario's troubling fiscal illness Add to ...

It is the doom-and-gloom that will rightly get much of the attention. The warning that Ontario is on pace for a $30-billion deficit and a debt-to-GDP ratio above 50 per cent. The dismal forecast that low economic growth is the new reality, not an anomaly. The suggestion that, to avoid financial disaster, the province needs to cut public spending to an extent that will dwarf what happened during the Mike Harris era.

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But for all that is grim about the diagnosis delivered by Don Drummond on Wednesday, the prescription is something altogether different. His government-commissioned report, delivered with a flourish that reflected the pivotal point it represents in Ontario’s history, is rooted in a pervasive optimism about the capacity of government to change for the better.

Optimism is all relative, and much of what this report points toward – fewer hospitals, more user fees, various labour battles – won't be pretty. But the underlying premise is that it's possible for government to ultimately spend 16 per less on each person in the province, in real terms, without the accompanying pain one would expect.

His perspective is heartening, in that it eschews simple-minded solutions – indiscriminate cuts, across-the-board wage freezes, asset sales for the purpose of a quick cash fix – in favour of efficiencies meant to last. But it’s also worrisome, in its faith that government can achieve things that it has never achieved before, and the subtext of what will happen if it can’t do that.

Through his report’s daunting 543 pages, there are some running themes. One is that government decisions should be “evidence-based.” Another is integration, which is to say fewer silos and more co-operation between people working toward the same goal. A third is that the public service should be more of a meritocracy, where productivity is rewarded and a lack of it is punished.

If these broad goals sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been kicking around public-policy circles for ages. And the same goes for many of the report’s specific recommendations.

“None of what we have said will surprise anyone who manages part of the health care system today,” Mr. Drummond and his co-commissioners acknowledge in the meatiest chapter of the report. Indeed, much of what’s recommended for the health sector – from forcing doctors to work more closely with each other to empowering Local Health Integration Networks to setting tougher standards for what the government pays for – is stuff that Dalton McGuinty’s government has already nominally committed to.

The challenge, as ever, is in converting it all to reality.

It’s not easy for a highly centralized government to drive even a handful of reforms at once, let alone the 362 that Mr. Drummond says are needed to build this brave new province. And a goal-oriented document, which offers a compendium of long-discussed reforms but little information on how to implement them, isn’t going to help much on that front.

Where the report should help – where it has to help, if it’s to prove of any lasting value – is with the will to at least try to do big things.

For a government that’s been in power for more than eight years, there are always too many reasons not to change. From bitter experience running up against seemingly immovable objects, it becomes about what’s not possible, rather than what is. So it’s refreshing to read a report that pays little attention to obstacles, and takes for granted that government is capable of doing what needs to be done.

Mr. McGuinty has to find a way, in the months ahead, to start rewarding Mr. Drummond's faith. Because the alternative, a complete collapse of public services once their unaffordability has passed the point of no return, would underscore just how sunny much of this report really is.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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