Wanted: Skilled leader to turn around fiscally distressed province. Must have strong stomach and a willingness to take on public-sector unions. Must be able to convince taxpayers that less is more or, at any rate, inevitable. Must be good at math, and preferably more likeable than Mike Harris.
No wonder Dalton McGuinty decided to quit. Wouldn't you? As far ahead as the eye could see, the headlines would have been painful. The days when he could be Ontario's Good Dad, bestowing kindergartens and green schemes on a grateful populace, are over. Now it's all cut, cut, cut. The populace is not grateful any more. People who used to love him, like teachers, are mad as hell. It's no fun to be the Mean Dad, especially when you've got to tell everyone you're cutting their allowance.
It was outrageous for Mr. McGuinty to prorogue the legislature and do a bunk. But from the party's point of view, it was smart. He bought the Liberals time to regroup. They'll come back with a shiny new leader who won't get blamed for dissolving the legislature or, hopefully, for the other excrescences that have attached themselves to the Good Ship McGuinty like barnacles. By spring, prorogation will be ancient history.
Besides, the media don't seem to mind too much. When Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament, the media and the Liberals declared the end of democracy as we know it. But when Liberals do it – hey, no big deal!
Leaders are judged by whether they leave the place in better shape than they found it. So how has Mr. McGuinty done? Let's see. He inherited a $5-billion deficit and promised to wipe it out; now it's $14.4-billion. He promised to keep a lid on spending; during his term in office, spending per person, in real terms, went up 50 per cent. The province's debt doubled. Back in 2003, Ontario's low electricity rates were a competitive advantage; now its rates are among the highest in North America. Ontario's economy used to be on top; now Newfoundland is sending us equalization payments.
Okay, it wasn't all his fault. The recession kicked our slats out. But Mr. McGuinty was spending like crazy long before that. He borrowed buckets of money to buy labour peace, and now we have no money and no peace. Of the green energy plan, the less said the better. He promised that gigantic subsidies for wind and solar would make us a world leader in renewable energy. But the world has moved on, and bailing out of green subsidies as fast as it can, because they cost billions and don't make sense.
Mr. McGuinty talked endlessly about how important it is for us to invest in kids. Maybe the kids will eventually thank him for another half a day of kindergarten. Or maybe they'll be mad that he saddled them with so much debt. The Conference Board of Canada says digging out from under will be extremely tough. If we simply maintain health-care spending just enough to cover population growth, today's kindergarteners will be heading into their 20s before they see a balanced budget. (Or the government could double the HST; surely we wouldn't mind.)
It's tough to be a Liberal in a post-liberal world. Today, governments everywhere are struggling to rein in entitlements they can no longer afford. Mr. McGuinty is scarcely the only progressive politician to pick a fight with teachers and other public-sector unions. The high-growth world that allowed public spending to go up and up is gone for good, or at least for a good long time. The old jobs aren't coming back, and the new jobs aren't coming fast enough. No one will be launching vast new social programs any time soon. The greatest task for the next generation of political leaders will be to maintain decent public services at a cost that people can afford.
In a way, you can't be too hard on the Premier. He didn't see this day coming, but neither did most of us. We wanted to believe that the good times would go on and on. He assured Ontarians they would. Perhaps it's not his fault that, years from now, his greatest legacy may be those giant wind turbines, rusting across the horizon as far as the eye can see.
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