Dalton McGuinty has spent so much time setting the table, he could give lessons to a busboy.
There was hope, in some quarters, that the Ontario Premier would use his Tuesday address to the Canadian Club to finally begin spelling out his plan to get the province's finances onto a stable footing. Instead, Mr. McGuinty yet again served notice that tough decisions will need to be made, without shedding much light on what those decisions will be.
The closest the speech came to making news was a goes-without-saying warning to public-sector unions that wage restraint will be an aim of coming contract negotiations. Otherwise, there was a reiteration of the goal to eliminate the $16-billion deficit by 2017-18, a recognition that doing so is key to Ontario's economic prospects, and a promise to be neither "rash" nor "timid" along the way.
All this may have been useful in framing the challenges ahead for Ontarians who don't pay rapt attention to provincial politics. But it fell short of what seemed, based on the way Liberals have been talking lately, to be one of its key goals: wresting control of the provincial agenda back from Don Drummond.
Last spring's appointment of the former bank economist to review the province's public services was a political masterstroke, allowing the Liberals to push the heavy lifting until after the fall election. And it may have had policy merit, bringing a fresh set of eyes to what's now a third-term government. But the Liberals didn't fully consider what they were getting themselves into, and many of them are now grumbling about Mr. Drummond's commission having taken on a life of its own.
Although his report won't be released before mid-February, Mr. Drummond has managed to dominate the provincial news cycle by using interviews to slowly roll out his key findings. Among them have been challenges to some of the Liberals' core policies, such as their signature commitment to smaller primary-school class sizes, and an extremely grim projection that 2-per-cent annual economic growth is the new normal.
Mr. Drummond's growing legend, to which Mr. McGuinty made light-hearted reference at the start of Tuesday's speech, can be chalked up partly to his adeptness at self-promotion. But if the Liberals are chafing, they also have themselves to blame.
Three-and-a-half months have passed since the election, and the government still hasn't announced or clearly signalled a single major policy aimed at the financial challenges largely ignored during the campaign. So Mr. Drummond has stepped into the void, and in the process created the impression that he's effectively writing the next budget.
If that's not true, and the Liberals insist it isn't, then it needs to be quickly disproven – if not for the sake of a confused public, then for markets and credit agencies, one of which recently warned Ontario of a potential downgrade.
It's one thing, perception-wise, for the government to cherry-pick from a commissioned report as it implements its own plan. It's another for that report to be the only discernible plan, and for the government to reject large elements of it. Even if the Liberals were subsequently to unveil their own alternatives to Mr. Drummond's proposals, they would have to be pretty bold to avoid the perception that they simply didn't have the stomachs to implement what their own "austerity guru" had recommended.
The most intriguing line in Mr. McGuinty's speech on Tuesday was that Health Minister Deb Matthews will "shortly" present an "exciting plan for health-care transformation." He was apparently referring to a speech Ms. Matthews will deliver next week to the Toronto Board of Trade.
Considering that health expenditures are approaching 50 per cent of provincial program spending, and account for about a quarter of Mr. Drummond's 400-plus recommendations, that gives the government one more chance to get ahead of the game. Or it could just be one more chance to set the table.