The strangest thing about the Doug Ford government – “Ontario’s Government for the People,” as it styles itself in the first sentence of every press release – is the degree to which some of its favourite policies are modelled on those of its predecessor. With its every breath, the Ford government denounces the destruction of the province by the Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne Liberals. But if you actually look at a few of the new government’s most important initiatives, you find it junking the best Liberal ideas while adopting and enhancing the worst.
Take the absurd practice of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize household electricity bills. The Liberals came up with this as a sneaky way to lower the province’s high electricity prices. The Progressive Conservatives could have stopped that. Instead, they won election on a plan to double down, by throwing more taxpayer money at utility bills and lowering hydro retail prices below hydro costs.
Or consider public-transit spending in the Greater Toronto Area. The Liberals pledged to depoliticize it by creating an arms-length agency, Metrolinx. Good idea. But the Liberals also immediately set about bending their own rules and meddling in decisions about what got built and where.
Here too, the Ford government promises a doubling down on the worst aspects of the Liberal record. It plans to further neuter Metrolinx while uploading the Toronto subway system, the better to subordinate future subway plans to the goal of winning votes in the 905.
Which brings us to Thursday’s unveiling of Ontario’s new greenhouse-gas reduction plan. As promised, carbon pricing – the provincial and federal Liberal plan, and the idea embraced by most economists – is dismissed and decried. Instead, a conservative government promises to come up with more regulations, rules and standards, combined with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.
The PCs have taken the previous government’s carbon plan, removed what was best and amped up what was worst. The best part, a carbon price that left it up to the market to figure out how to lower emissions, is gone.
The worst part, a lot of government meddling in business, combined with taxpayer funds for polluters and green initiatives, remains. You can only call this progress if you’re looking at it upside down.
The pre-Ford PCs were planning to do the exact opposite. Until less than a year ago, Ontario PCs were promising to keep carbon pricing while getting rid of the slush-fund aspects of it, by returning 100 per cent of money to consumers in the form of lower income taxes.
That plan is now, ironically, the Trudeau government’s plan. The Ontario scheme unveiled by Environment Minister Rod Phillips looks nothing like that. But it does lean heavily on the accomplishments of those bad old Liberals.
Mr. Phillips says that his government is committed to achieving the Paris Agreement target of reducing 2005 GHG emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. And glory be, Ontario is already more than two-thirds of the way there! Emissions in the province have fallen by 22 per cent since 2005. Why? Because the previous Liberal regime closed the province’s coal-fired electricity plants.
Over their nearly 15 years in office, the Liberals dramatically lowered emissions from the electricity sector, though it’s hard to argue that they did so in the most economically efficient way possible. Coal was replaced with a slew of highly subsidized wind and solar facilities, and a bunch of new gas plants. The latter fired up local opponents and led to a scandal that hounded Mr. McGuinty from office and followed Ms. Wynne through her term.
But if the Liberal plan was flawed, it at least met the GHG goal. Almost all of Ontario’s electricity now comes from zero-emission sources, mostly nuclear and hydro. However, fulfilling the rest of the Paris target means cutting emissions from industry and, above all, trucks and cars.
That’s where carbon taxes should come in – the ones the federal government insists it will impose, while returning the cash to provincial taxpayers. The Ford government could have embraced that approach, which if done right is transparent and effective and leaves it to consumers to make decisions for themselves. Unfortunately, it has delivered a plan that relies on regulations, along with a large helping of hope and evasion.
Instead of Liberal-plus, it’s Liberal-minus. Again.