Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.
Step a couple of blocks away from Queen's Park, and all the sound and fury about the cancellation of a couple of gas-fired power plants can seem a bit removed from the real world.
Sure, there's some awareness that the provincial Liberals wasted an awful lot of money on developments scrapped for political reasons. While perceptions may be more charitable in Mississauga and Oakville, where the two would-be plants faced major local opposition, the controversy certainly makes life more difficult for Premier Kathleen Wynne as she tries to signal a fresh start after the Dalton McGuinty era. But in Toronto and its suburbs, where provincial politics struggles for attention between elections, the white-hot rage is limited.
Get further away from the provincial capital, though, and you might start to find something a little closer to the anger conveyed by opposition politicians on a daily basis. Because in parts of the province outside the Greater Toronto Area, the power-plant saga can represent something more than just the latest example of political cynicism and government waste.
In those places, it's also about preferential treatment for urbanites or suburbanites over those in rural areas or small towns – at least, those rural areas or small towns where there has been opposition to a different sort of power development.
With the introduction of the Green Energy Act during Dalton McGuinty's second term, the government expedited projects – primarily wind turbines – they hoped would stimulate economically hard-hit corners of the province. But the manner in which they did so, including cutting municipalities out of the process, effectively told communities they were getting the developments whether they liked them or not. As a result, some residents were left with the impression that their concerns – economic, aesthetic, health-related, whatever – were going unheeded in a way that wouldn't happen to those closer to the centre of power.
The effect of the power-plant cancellations was to give credence to that perception. First, in the fall of 2010, the Liberals yielded to a group of affluent suburbanites – the sorts of people who could lure Erin Brokovich to their protests – by scrapping the Oakville one. Then, in the middle of the 2011 election, Mr. McGuinty made a similar concession to Mississauga to help save a seat or two.
Just how much those decisions contributed to the Liberals' virtual wipe-out from rural ridings is hard to know; a host of grievances, not to mention broader economic struggles, also played a role. But speak to some former Liberal MPPs, particularly from Ontario's southwest, and they'll say they knew they were cooked when the Mississauga announcement came down.
The Liberals' slim chances of re-establishing themselves in those regions are now being made all the more remote by the constant reminders and revelations about the power plants. This week, the Auditor-General delivered news that keeping the Mississaugans happy had cost $275-million. By next fall, there will be similar news about Oakville, with the price-tag likely to be much, much higher than the $40-million the government has implausibly claimed.
Beyond the Liberals' fortunes, there is some risk of Ontario's divisions – between urban and rural, between the GTA and the rest of the province – becoming more ensconced than ever. Kathleen Wynne, the new premier, is making more effort than Mr. McGuinty did to reach out to regions that have turned their backs to her party. But the Liberals could yet get re-elected, and conceivably even reclaim their majority, without winning back those rural ridings – and with residents of them feeling more disconnected than ever.
Just because the amount of money spent not to build new power sources made for the most tangible cost, in other words, does not mean it was the only one.
Adam Radwanski is the columnist covering the Ontario legislature.