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Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan speaks at the Economic Club of Canada on eliminating Ontario's deficit in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan speaks at the Economic Club of Canada on eliminating Ontario's deficit in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adam Radwanski

Ontario Liberals talk racetrack closures to pull on the reins Add to ...

At the start of his lunch speech on Monday, Dwight Duncan spoke extensively about his own weight loss as a metaphor for the provincial belt-tightening ahead.

Then Ontario’s Finance Minister helped himself to a healthy serving of low-hanging fruit.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s release of Don Drummond’s report on how to tame the province’s $16-billion deficit, which will kick off debate about very tough decisions affecting core services, Mr. Duncan is picking off the easy stuff. First it was closing Ontario Place, a mostly symbolic gesture that will save $20-million per year. On Monday, three more cost-cutting measures were announced – ones that promise hundreds of millions in savings, but still only scratch at the surface of what lies ahead.

Of these, two are unlikely to meet with much meaningful opposition. If relocating the Toronto headquarters of the LCBO can bring in over $200-million, as Mr. Duncan claims, the only question will be why the government didn’t do it sooner. And considering Service Ontario is already largely run by the private sector, many people won’t even notice if the government divests even more of it.

The third deserves more attention, both because it involves a bigger dollar figure and because it has the potential to stir up a modicum of controversy. But it, too, falls into the category of common sense – which is somewhat ironic, since it involves a reversal of a policy implemented by Mike Harris.

Bizarrely, Ontario currently spends up to $345-million annually to prop up a money-losing horse-racing industry. Or, more to the point, Ontarians prop it up by spending their money at slot machines that were added to racetracks in the late 1990s.

At present, 20 per cent of the revenue from those machines is used to keep the horses running; Mr. Duncan strongly hinted that he intends for the province to keep it instead. In effect, he’s saying that 17 racetracks is more than Ontario needs, so he’s prepared for many of them to just become gaming sites (or shut down altogether and stop drawing slot-machine customers away from nearby casinos).

That has the potential to stir up a little unrest in rural communities, where Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals are not well-loved to begin with. By the end of Monday afternoon, the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association was sending out press releases pointedly noting that it represents “the second largest sub-sector of the agricultural economy.”

But the government might almost welcome modest pushback, in order to give the impression it’s doing something significant. Because despite the hundreds of millions in potential savings, these announcements by Mr. Duncan were as much a messaging exercise as anything.

In part, it’s about conditioning. Before long, Ontario will be having debates about whether to close hospitals. Closing racetracks is a way of easing into it, while sending signals about the need for sacrifice.

It’s also about buying room. The Liberals are eager to get ahead of Mr. Drummond and show they have some ideas he doesn’t. (Sources say the LCBO relocation is not among his recommendations.) That way, they can more credibly avoid implementing his most politically toxic proposals, such as abandoning full-day kindergarten – an option Mr. Duncan explicitly ruled out to reporters after his speech.

And it’s about buying time. Much of what the government wants and needs to do, such as restructuring the health-care system, is enormously complicated and will require many years of implementation. So in the meanwhile, trying to keep both the public and the markets satisfied that action is being taken, the Liberals are grabbing what’s easily within their reach.

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