Politicians often try to bribe voters with their own money. When election season rolls around, you can count on them to throw around targeted dollops of public funds in an attempt to win over key ridings and voting blocs. Usually, though, the bribery is a little less overt than the cheque that arrived at my Toronto home this week from Premier Doug Ford.
I knew it would be coming. A few weeks ago, an e-mail landed in my inbox. It said it was from Mr. Ford himself. It was his name in the header, anyway. The actual email address was firstname.lastname@example.org. OPC stands for the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, Mr. Ford’s gang, which is hoping to win a second term in office on June 2.
“Marcus,” it began, in a rather familiar tone. (I know Mr. Ford from his days as right-hand man to his brother Rob at City Hall, but I wouldn’t say we’re pals.) “Each year, you throw away $120 to renew your licence plate sticker. Let’s face it, it’s just another tax. I’m scrapping it. And I’m introducing red tape legislation to give you a refund for the last two years.”
True to his word, Mr. Ford’s government sent my household of two a cheque for $440. It came in a white envelope from the Ministry of Transportation, which mentioned nothing about the coming election. An enclosed notice said that “to save you money, the Ontario government has made renewing your licence plate free and is refunding the cost of doing so for the past two years.”
How very generous. And how perfectly timed, with the election just seven weeks away. Mr. Ford is trying to persuade voters that he is a premier “For the People,” as his ball caps proclaim. Which is good to know, because I sure wouldn’t vote for someone who is against the people. A zippy new campaign jingle says he and his government are “always fighting for you.”
Especially if you happen to drive a car and live in the ‘burbs. The sprawling suburbs that ring Toronto are a goldmine for votes. Many drivers are annoyed about higher prices at the gas pump. To secure their allegiance, the Ford government is not only killing the licence-renewal fee and sending them refund cheques, but trimming a few cents from the gas tax and eliminating tolls on two suburban highways: the 412 and the 418.
Let’s hope voters aren’t so easily bought. The cheque stunt is both cheesy politics and bad policy. Ontario is struggling with a big budget deficit caused by all that pandemic spending. It has ambitious plans for building mass transit and expanding the highway system. The licence fee might have helped cover the enormous cost. Instead, the government will lose $1-billion in reliable income.
Cutting tolls and gas taxes when Canada is striving to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions is hard to justify. The federal carbon tax makes consuming energy more costly; Mr. Ford makes it cheaper. It is a push-me, pull-you approach to environmental planning. Nobody ends up ahead in the long run.
Road tolls are good policy. They put more of the burden for building and maintaining highways on those who actually use them, instead of the general public. They make drivers think harder about when and how often they use their vehicles. Conservatives like Mr. Ford should positively love tolls, because they depend on market pricing and the user-pay principle. By rights, he should be imposing more, not trying to ingratiate himself with voters by getting rid of them.
So, I’m afraid there were no hallelujahs at my place when Mr. Ford’s cheque came in, though there may have been other exclamations. I am tempted to send it back to him. “Doug,” I might begin, “please use this money on something more useful than trying to purchase my vote. I like road tolls and think gas taxes should be higher, not lower.” But I somehow doubt he would reply, even though we are on first-name terms.
Instead, I think I’ll redirect it to a useful cause, such as humanitarian relief for Ukraine or rainforest conservation. If Mr. Ford can’t use my money, I’m sure they could.
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