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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media during a pre-budget press conference on Feb. 21, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media during a pre-budget press conference on Feb. 21, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

McGuinty's magical, missing immigration-tax credit Add to ...

It dominated the entire first week of last fall’s provincial election, and might be the only policy dispute most Ontarians would remember from the entire campaign.

Now, by way of its absence, it serves as a reminder of the bizarre alternate reality in which that campaign took place, with marginal wedge issues serving as distractions from the enormous fiscal challenges that would dominate the next government’s mandate.

Nowhere in the post-election budget tabled last week by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is there any mention of a new tax credit for employers who hire skilled immigrants – the Liberal promise that briefly took on a life of its own. In fact, insiders say, the issue was barely even on the government’s radar as that budget was prepared.

Really, it never should have been a big issue in the first place. The tax credit was a minor platform plank, rather cynically aimed at solidifying support in a few immigrant communities. Until concerns were expressed by one of their own members, in a conference call leaked to the media, the Liberals didn’t seem to consider it especially controversial.

What Dalton McGuinty’s party hadn’t anticipated, but came to welcome, was the over-the-top reaction by Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives. Before long, Mr. Hudak was spouting off about the Liberals favouring “foreign workers,” while his party flooded the airwaves with vicious ads making the same argument. And the Liberals, initially struggling to explain a policy they really hadn’t thought much about, were soon returning fire.

If we’re being charitable, the debate allowed the two parties to tell bigger stories about their opponents. For the Tories, it was evidence that Mr. McGuinty had lost touch with most Ontarians, and was too preoccupied with picking winners and losers. For the Liberals, it was proof of Mr. Hudak’s small-mindedness, and his largely rural party’s disconnection with urban and suburban Ontario. (In the end, the Liberals’ narrative seemed to prevail; the Tories eventually dropped the issue, but not before Mr. Hudak had made a first impression that contributed to the Tories’ dismal showing in the Greater Toronto Area.)

But if that was the best way the parties could draw a contrast, it was because they were so resolutely unwilling to seriously engage on the issues that they all knew were much more pressing.

The real question, by last fall, was how Ontario would eliminate a deficit in the $16-billion range, without devastating core services. But the Liberals punted it by appointing economist Don Drummond to conduct a review of program spending, which would only report after the election. And the other two parties joined them in a conspiracy of silence, adopting the Liberals’ time frame and year-to-year projections for getting back to balance, while promising various forms of pocketbook relief as though there were ample supplies of money to hand out.

So with big-picture consensus, an issue that could promptly be disposed of post-campaign took centre stage, and even the target audience wasn’t happy about it. During that first leg of the campaign, members of immigrant communities in the GTA expressed bafflement at the prominence of the tax-credit issue, and frustration that it was trumping other issues – health care, transportation, etc. – that most of their members cared more about.

Those folks, and others, can take heart that it’s no longer a distraction. It’s perhaps merciful that Mr. Duncan didn’t include it in his budget, just to provoke the Tories.

Such is the cost, for the Liberals, of trying to quickly pivot to seriousness after a campaign that didn’t show much of it.

For the rest of us, the real cost came last fall, when we lost perhaps our best opportunity to discuss the looming overhaul of the province’s government and its services. We were too busy talking about a policy that would have accounted for roughly 0.0001 per cent of program spending, even if anyone had been serious about implementing it.

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