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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Sept. 30, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Sept. 30, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ontario’s pension ambitions are a big risk and a hard sell for Wynne Add to ...

A few days before the last Ontario election, then-premier Dalton McGuinty offered a surprisingly candid assessment of his political capital or lack thereof: “I would think I’ve fulfilled my quota of asking Ontarians to do difficult things.”

What he meant, largely, was his ability to ask Ontarians to pay more for things. Mr. McGuinty had imposed a health tax; he had brought in a harmonized sales tax; he had presided over a steep climb in energy prices. He was not prepared to risk trying to explain to his province that still more money was needed.

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It is perhaps quixotic of his successor – saddled with the gas-plants scandal Mr. McGuinty left behind, and all the ensuing public cynicism – to think she can make such demands. But she seems determined to try.

Shortly after taking office, Kathleen Wynne signalled her intention to collect new taxes, tolls or some other form of dedicated revenue to finance new transportation infrastructure. Now, she and her advisers are mulling something even more ambitious: making Ontario the first province to launch a mandatory public pension plan.

For a government with less baggage, that would not be an easy sell. There is a reason the federal government has been reluctant to significantly increase Canadian Pension Plan premiums and benefits (which would be the impetus for a provincial program). As with transportation spending, but much more so, it would mean asking Ontarians to pay now for something they would get only many years down the road.

There is a strong case, amid grim projections about younger generations facing sharp standard-of-living declines because of a lack of retirement savings, that such an investment is necessary. And some members of Ms. Wynne’s campaign team believe that, because a large and highly coveted swath of middle-income voters would be hit the hardest, a bold move to look out for them could be a big winner in the provincial election expected next spring.

But there are also reasons to believe Ontarians are most worried about the here and now. Their economy has struggled to recover from the recession that hit five years ago, and many worry about making ends meet. Taking money off their paycheques without letting them opt out, which is probably the only way a provincial pension plan could be effective, could easily feel like unnecessarily dipping into their pockets. And if other provinces did not follow Ontario’s lead, there would also be legitimate fear that forcing employers to pay additional premiums would drive business away.

All things being equal, Ms. Wynne – who appears to be an able salesperson – might be able to allay those concerns. But of course, because of the baggage, all things are not equal.

“They want to raise taxes on employers; they want to raise taxes on employees,” Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli said on Wednesday in response to the pension possibility, and then he delivered the kicker. “Quite frankly, I don’t think this province is ready to trust the government with another billion dollars.”

He was alluding to the gas plants, and perhaps the preceding eHealth scandal besides. Like most governments that remain in office for a decade, the Liberals have provided enough examples of why people should not trust them with money to make it difficult to ask for more. And at this point, cynicism toward government in general seems to be high enough to make it difficult for any party to ask voters to look beyond their immediate needs.

Ms. Wynne’s unwillingness to take that lying down is admirable, and perhaps it will earn Ontarians’ respect. But the Premier will need to pick her campaign battles carefully. If she can get her province to make even one new investment in its collective future, it will be more than her predecessor thought he could do by the time he handed the reins to her.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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