When the governing Liberals served notice this week that Ontarians will have to pay more to renew drivers' licences and licence plates, their opponents were ready with a familiar explanation.
"Transportation Minister Glen Murray says these soaring fees are intended to cover 'rising costs,'" Progressive Conservative finance critic Peter Shurman said via press release. "But we all know he's referring to the ever-escalating costs surrounding the Liberal gas plant scandal."
It is probably unfair to single out a political party for lazily reconstructing facts to suit its preferred political narrative, since they all do it. But this was such a gratuitous attempt to feed off the obsession that has overtaken Queen's Park for the better part of two years that it played almost like self-parody. And perhaps that is needed, to restore some perspective to the place.
To be clear: Dalton McGuinty's decisions before the 2011 election to spend hundreds of millions of dollars cancelling power plants in Mississauga and Oakville so the Liberals could keep a few seats were indefensible. So were the low-balling of the costs and efforts to prevent related information from coming out, which apparently included trying to strong-arm the Speaker of the Legislature. All of that was evidence of the rot that crept into the former premier's regime and why he had to go. The Liberals deserve all the grief they have gotten, and may deserve more of it when Ontarians next go to the polls.
But in the meanwhile, this province has other, more pressing matters to worry about – ones that explain, for instance, why service fees are going up.
Ontarians will not be paying more to keep their cars on the roads because Mr. McGuinty cancelled gas plants. They will be paying more because their province has a $10-billion annual deficit, which is unlikely to be affected by (comparatively small) energy costs that will almost certainly be covered by hydro ratepayers rather than come out of general revenues.
So why does Ontario have that huge shortfall? Because its economy took a huge hit in the 2008 crash and has not really recovered. And because its program spending, despite being low compared to that of most other provinces, is not sustainable in that economic climate, with lower tax rates (especially on the business side) than previously, and an aging population.
That being the case, fiscal and economic debate should dominate the minority legislature when it returns this fall. Premier Kathleen Wynne should be pressed to explain how she intends to get the province back to balanced budgets by the target date of 2017-18 – something more unclear than ever since she has softened some of her predecessor's austerity measures. And she should be pressed for a comprehensive plan, of which there is little evidence thus far, to back up her claim that job creation is her priority.
Instead, Ms. Wynne continues to be held accountable primarily for something outside her control, and about which nobody can do much of anything at this point.
If this track continues, the gas plants will continue to bog down the legislature as the Tories pursue more contempt motions against the government; they will dominate the news cycle, particularly when another damning report from the province's Auditor-General comes out; they will be treated as though all the province's troubles can be traced to them.
It is, essentially, a way to put off more challenging conversations. The Tories seem to think they know what needs to be done – a major downsizing of government, coupled with a war against unions – but rather than speak honestly to Ontarians about sacrifices, they go for the easy hit. The third-party New Democrats do not appear to have much clue what to do about the finances, which has led their leader to suggest that merely eliminating scandal will cause the books to sort themselves out. Nobody, including the Liberals, seems willing to engage in a serious discussion about the choices and trade-offs ahead, so the gas plants fill the void.
Eventually, nothing will be left to say about them. Then, with the really troublesome questions still hanging over our heads, it will require some collective willpower not to settle on another scandal that offers easy answers.