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Ontario gears up for a different life post-Drummond

Ontario's day of reckoning is upon it.

At approximately 2:15 on Wednesday afternoon, what has been bubbling beneath the surface will burst above it. And even in a place known for its apathy toward provincial politics, the debate about what lies ahead will become impossible to ignore.

Contrary to what's been conveyed by some media reports, economist Don Drummond did not write the next budget. But what he has done is in some ways even more important than that. With the voluminous report finally set for release, he will tell Ontarians what their politicians have been afraid to tell them: that the comfortable status quo to which we've grown accustomed is about to become a thing of the past.

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There's a reason, beyond punting deficit-reduction plans past a provincial election, why Dalton McGuinty struck a commission last spring to examine the future of the province's public services. And there's a reason why he appointed Mr. Drummond, a former bank economist and federal bureaucrat practised in the art of self-promotion, to head it. The government needed new ideas, and someone to lend legitimacy to controversial ideas it already had, and Mr. Drummond fit the bill.

In retrospect, it was a stunning confession on the part of the Premier. Though it wasn't obvious during an alternate-reality fall campaign, Mr. McGuinty effectively acknowledged nearly a year ago that his province was broken, and called in reinforcements.

But just how broken has become apparent only in the past few months, and it's caused Mr. Drummond's commission to take on a life beyond what Mr. McGuinty envisioned.

A manufacturing-reliant province that's become an honorary member of the U.S. rust belt, Ontario has seen its economic recovery go off the rails amid global turmoil. It's been placed on negative watch by one of the world's leading credit agencies. It's been told by a census that it's losing its pull to newcomers. It's had insult added to injury, with oil-rich Alberta promising a $5.2-billion surplus by 2014-15, a far cry from not being on pace to wipe out a $16-billion deficit before 2021.

If these developments have been too disparate to fully capture Ontarians' collective attention, Mr. Drummond's report will comprehensively show what they add up to. It will revolve around the premise that the province can no longer count on anything above 2 per cent economic growth, and must reduce its spending growth to less than 1 per cent annually to get back to balanced budgets and retain markets' confidence. And through some 360 proposals, including roughly 100 related to health care alone, it will set out what that means.

The shock won't be in individual recommendations, so much as their totality. Mr. Drummond won't just recommend an overhaul of the health system. He won't just call for the Liberals to scrap education policies that helped get them elected, including smaller classes and full-day kindergarten. He won't just ask them to renege on another campaign commitment to continue easing the financial burden on cash-strapped municipalities (a recommendation learned by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday).

Going down any one of those roads would force Ontarians to significantly change their expectations for what services they can expect. Mr. Drummond will ask the province to go down all of them at once, and other treacherous paths as well.

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To review, the Premier of the country's largest province asked a trusted economist how much he needed to do to get it back onto stable ground. And that economist and his co-panelists returned with a veritable encyclopedia of things that need to be done differently. Not small things; not easy things; not things, in many cases, that are consistent with what Mr. McGuinty and his colleagues and competitors have been saying. Big, scary things that might ultimately make for a better province, but would make for all kinds of upheaval along the way.



Of course, Mr. McGuinty isn't bound to accept all these ideas. The kindergarten roll-back, for instance, has already been rejected. The government seems to have a few relatively low-pain ideas that Mr. Drummond doesn't, so the commission's model for fiscal sustainability isn't a house of cards that will collapse if one element is removed.

But starting Wednesday, it will also fall to Ontarians to decide what they think is palatable; to consider the balance between sustainability and immediate need that other parts of the Western world are already agonizing over. And it will fall to their government to start implementing difficult changes that, at some level, it's long known are needed.

Give Mr. McGuinty this: He appointed Mr. Drummond, and let him do what needed to be done and say what needed to be said. Partly by design, partly by accident, the Premier helped bring this mess into the open. Now we all have to figure out what to do about it.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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