Ontario New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath is vowing to protect drivers at the pumps by setting a weekly price cap on the skyrocketing cost of gasoline.
The pledge, announced on Thursday, is the latest indication that both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives plan to run populist campaigns focusing on pocketbook issues for the Oct. 6 provincial election.
The NDP would target gas prices, which have jumped as much as 10 cents a litre overnight in recent months, by giving Ontario's energy regulator new powers to impose a weekly ceiling to reduce volatility. The Ontario Energy Board, which regulates electricity and natural gas prices in the province, would also be able to intervene to prevent gouging.
The point is not to keep prices artificially low, Ms. Horwath said at a news conference on the front lawn of the provincial legislature, where she was flanked by taxi drivers. Rather, it's to stop the oil industry from price gouging.
"Filling your tank should not be a game of chance," she said. "Drivers will know what they will be paying that week. No surprises, no shocks, no waking up the next morning to a price that's 10 cents more than it was the night before."
Liberal campaign manager Greg Sorbara criticized the NDP promise, saying there is little a provincial government can do to force down petroleum prices, which are set internationally, and that even the United States government has reached a dead end trying to address this issue.
Industry Minister Tony Clement hauled industry executives before parliamentary hearings in Ottawa last month to explain why drivers across Canada are stuck with soaring gas prices. But if precedent is any guide, such hearings are little more than an opportunity for MPs to channel their constituents' anger.
"I guess on Tony's part, it was a nice post-election opportunity to get together with the boys," Mr. Sorbara told reporters.
However, some provinces have taken steps to take some of the volatility out of prices. In the four provinces in Atlantic Canada, prices are set once a week or every two weeks, with some flexibility for extreme emergencies. Quebec, along with 24 states south of the border, also regulate gas prices.
A quick scan of current gas prices reveals that consumers can pay more to fill up their tank in provinces with regulation. In Ontario, gas prices ranged from a low of 112.9 cents a litre on Thursday to a high of 152 cents. In Nova Scotia, the range was 127.9 cents to 132.6 cents. And in New Brunswick, 121.9 cents to 129.9 cents.
Overall, however, gas prices in Atlantic Canada are on average lower today than they were before regulation. Real revenues per litre of gas received by wholesalers and retailers in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were lower after regulation, concludes a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Nova Scotia.
Gas prices were a hot-button issue in the New Brunswick election in 2006. The same could happen in Ontario this year.
A recent poll by Nanos Research indicates that voters are becoming increasingly concerned about the everyday cost of living. Just under 9 per cent of the 503 Ontarians polled said gas prices were their top concern.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who is leading in public-opinion polls, has promised to remove the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax from home heating bills - an idea he borrowed from the NDP. He is also appealing to middle-class voters by promising to cut income taxes and allow families to lower their tax bill through income splitting.