Only one of Ontario’s opposition leaders seems interested in what a former bank economist has to say about reforming the province’s public services. And it’s not the opposition leader you might expect.
During a visit to The Globe and Mail’s editorial board on Thursday, Andrea Horwath – whose New Democrats have traditionally been highly suspicious of Bay Street, and fiercely protective of government services – sounded open-minded about the findings of the review headed by former Toronto Dominion chief economist Don Drummond. And she said she expects the finding of Mr. Drummond’s commission, which was appointed by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals and is expected to report shortly after the Oct. 6 election, to be “independent” of interference from whichever party wins power
But in a telephone interview the same day, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak strongly hinted that he would only be interested in Mr. Drummond’s recommendations if they “fall in line” with his party’s platform.
“If I have the honour of serving as premier, I’ll see how far along Mr. Drummond is,” Mr. Hudak said. “But I’d expect the recommendations he brings to the table will be consistent with the winning platform in the province.”
Mr. Hudak’s shot across Mr. Drummond’s bow would be less surprising if the PC Leader had a more robust plan to eliminate the province’s $14-billion deficit – part of it believed to be structural – at a time of major economic turbulence.
It’s not that he’s without ideas on that front, including a promise to annually cut 2 per cent of spending outside health and education (by far the two biggest ministries) and a vague intention to change arbitration rules to help lower public-sector wages. But few people familiar with the government’s finances believe that will be enough to provide long-term financial stability, especially considering he plans to concurrently offer billions of dollars in tax cuts and energy rebates.
Indeed, through most of the provincial campaign all three parties have avoided speaking about the tough financial decisions that the next government will face – seemingly with the tacit understanding that Mr. Drummond will do much of the heavy lifting.
By most accounts, the former Toronto Dominion chief economist is game. Sources say much of his commission’s early attention is being devoted to the sensitive subject of health care, which makes sense since flattening increases in health spending at 3 per cent annually is central to all parties’ budgeting assumptions. And he appears to have been given free rein to propose major changes to the way the broader public service functions, short of recommending tax increases or cuts to health and education (as opposed to cost containment).
Mr. Hudak’s skepticism likely owes to the Tories’ belief that Mr. Drummond, once a senior federal bureaucrat, is a Liberal partisan in an economist’s clothing. Certainly, many Tories don’t enjoy a warm relationship with him.
But nobody is suggesting that, if Mr. Drummond proposes things that are anathema to the Tories, they’d be duty-bound to adopt them. And if the Tories happened to like some of his recommendations, the fact that he was appointed by Mr. McGuinty could provide them with cover to do some controversial things.
Besides, it’s fair to say this fall’s campaign has not exactly been bursting with novel ideas for managing Ontario’s finances. One might have thought whoever winds up in power thereafter would welcome as many fresh perspectives as they could get.