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Ontario Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty , the NDP's Andrea Horwath and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak are shown in a photo combination taken from the provincial election debate in Toronto on Sept. 27, 2011. (The Canadian Press)
Ontario Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty , the NDP's Andrea Horwath and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak are shown in a photo combination taken from the provincial election debate in Toronto on Sept. 27, 2011. (The Canadian Press)

Why Ontario voters can't afford to stay home Add to ...

In a campaign dominated by missteps, minor controversies and marginal wedge issues, the high stakes have not always been easy to notice.

But when Ontarians cast their ballots in Thursday’s election, they will be making a hugely important decision – one that will help shape their government not just for the next few years, but potentially for decades to come.

Over the course of the campaign, the scale of the province’s financial challenges – considerable to begin with – has only grown. Economic turbulence has cast serious doubt upon the optimistic projections on which all parties based their platform costing, with revenues likely taking a serious hit. Sources familiar with the province’s finances say that the 2011-12 deficit will likely wind up higher than the most recent projection, which was $16-billion. And some chunk of that is likely structural.

In short, winning government may not be much of a prize. But then, it’s easy to govern in good times; the real tests come in tougher ones. And whoever Ontarians elect this time around will be plenty tested.

Start with economic management. Ontario, like the rest of the country, has been reasonably sheltered from the global economic storm. But there are serious doubts how long that will last. And regardless, the province will be faced with the same question that has lingered even during recovery from the last recession: How does a traditionally manufacturing-reliant province, less able to rely on natural resources than many other parts of Canada, remain competitive?

The next government’s ability to answer that question – be it through the economic activism advocated by the Liberals during this campaign, or the free-market faith expressed by the Progressive Conservatives, or the protectionism pushed by the New Democrats – will go some ways toward determining the state of its balance sheet.

But even if Ontario’s economy experiences reasonably healthy growth, changing demographics – most notably an aging population – will still require some tough financial decisions. Much as the three provincial parties have preferred not to dwell on it, whoever wins office will have little choice but to make serious changes to the way government delivers its services, or how it collects revenues, or both.

Health care, by far the biggest and most valued provincial program, will ultimately be at the centre of this discussion. All parties have based their long-term plans around flattening health spending increases at 3 per cent annually. That’s a herculean task that could require some combination of hospital restructuring, changing practices for doctors and investing in long-term care and homecare.

Education, the second-biggest provincial file, does not have the same degree of spending growth. But here, at least, there will be discussions about whether to continue paying for labour peace in schools, as the government has done for the past eight years.

Outside of delivering those and a few other core services, the government will have to decide just how much it should – or shouldn’t – be doing. At the least, there will almost inevitably be a new focus on getting value for money, both in government departments or in the broader public sector.

A coming public-service review by Don Drummond, the former Toronto Dominion chief economist, should help frame that discussion and point the next government toward some specific choices. But ultimately, it will be up to whoever sits in the Premier’s office to determine just what it is a provincial government should look like in the 21st century.

In a perfect world, the party leaders would have directly addressed that question on a daily basis for the past month. Instead, through a sort of tacit agreement, they have left it until after election day.

But that doesn’t mean they would all come at it the same way. These are very different individuals, with different values, different teams around them, different life experiences.

For the past month, Ontarians have at least had the opportunity to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of the people who want to lead their province. On Thursday, they will have to decide which of them is best suited to the massive task at hand.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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