What do economic development, immigration policy, electricity distribution, child obesity and the future of a shuttered amusement park have in common?
All of them are issues that confound Ontario’s Premier, to the extent that he’s recently called in outside help to figure out what to do about them.
There is no great shame in knowing what you don’t know, and a willingness to consult is a welcome trait in a leader. But for Dalton McGuinty, it has turned into a borderline fetish – one that doesn’t seem befitting of someone in his third term in office, who has had nine years to wrap his head around the province’s challenges.
This is a premier, after all, who punted his toughest fiscal decisions past last fall’s election by appointing a former bank economist, Don Drummond, to conduct a comprehensive review of the province’s public services. And since he came into possession of Mr. Drummond’s report, in February, Mr. McGuinty has scarcely been able to go a week without appointing more “expert panels.”
In some cases, that guidance is well-needed, and probably would be for a government of any stripe. Nobody wants to accept the gloomy economic growth projections on which Mr. Drummond’s cost-cutting recommendations were predicated, but nobody knows exactly how to beat them. So in lieu of easy answers, it’s hard to argue with the striking of a “jobs and prosperity council,” to be headed by RBC CEO Gord Nixon.
In other instances, though, it’s not so much about help making decisions as about help avoiding them. The most egregious example is the potential sale or consolidation of local distribution companies – the 80 energy utilities, such as Toronto Hydro, that are mostly owned by municipalities. The idea has been kicking around for ages, and many Liberals were ready to embrace it as a way of making the system more efficient. But others, including Energy Minister Chris Bentley, were nervous. So the government bought time by enlisting a trio of former MPPs to study the issue.
Another panel, announced in March and aimed at better connecting newcomers with jobs, was a tacit recognition that Ontario has lagged behind other provinces in immigration policy, and is now unsure how to catch up. The summoning of former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory to figure out what to do with Ontario Place was cover for the decision to shut down the rusted jewel of Toronto’s waterfront after years of neglect. And while last week’s panel on child obesity was not a surprise, having been promised in the Liberals’ campaign platform last fall, that hardly seems an issue that should baffle the best and brightest minds in government.
It’s not as though Mr. McGuinty’s government has been entirely incapable of making tough decisions of late. It’s taken an uncharacteristically hard line on the labour file, imposing fee cuts on doctors and showing little give in the early stages of negotiations with teachers. And around the time of this spring’s budget, it announced a series of controversial measures – including an overhaul of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and an offloading of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission – meant to help eliminate a nearly $15-billion deficit.
But even many Liberals acknowledge that, as they try to convey (to both the general public and the markets) a sense of urgency about tackling the province’s fiscal and economic problems, the excess of consultation has the opposite effect.
Alas, calling in the experts is too often the easy way out – of cabinet impasses, or tense relations with stakeholders, or the fraught politics of a minority legislature – for Mr. McGuinty and his ministers to pass up.
In other words, the excess of panels might be on the long list of things the Liberals aren’t quite sure what to do about. Perhaps they could strike a panel to help them figure it out.