There's an election in the air here in Ontario. I know this because the provincial Finance Minister showed up at a liquor store the other day and announced a pilot project to open kiosks in grocery stores.
Drink up, voters! You're going to need it.
The governing Liberals don't really want an election right now, but the gas-plant scandal keeps exploding in their faces. It's the Stench That Will Not Die. In the latest eye-popping instalment, we learned that former premier Dalton McGuinty's chief of staff, a very clever guy named David Livingston, is under investigation by police, alleged to have had an outsider wipe a bunch of computer hard drives during Mr. McGuinty's last days in office. The suspicion is that the hard drives contained seriously embarrassing e-mails showing exactly how the government cynically decided to cancel a couple of extremely unpopular gas plants in order to win votes.
According to a police affidavit – its allegations have not been proved in court – at least one top government bureaucrat said that the alleged scheme to tamper with computers and erase e-mail trails was unbelievably dumb. Like Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright, Mr. Livingston comes off as another of those incredibly smart people recruited from the private sector who was so determined to protect his boss that he forgot how it would look when someone inevitably found out what he'd done.
Kathleen Wynne, Mr. McGuinty's successor, says she didn't know about any of these shenanigans. She has kept her minority government alive by presenting a fresh face to the public and being nice to Andrea Horwath and the New Democrats, who don't want an election either. But these things take on lives of their own, and Ms. Horwath is under pressure to pull the plug.
Personally, I like Ms. Wynne. She reminds me of a competent, no-nonsense high-school principal. She has a much better personality than Mr. McGuinty (admittedly, a low bar), and despite the rantings of the Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, there's nothing so far to link her to the gas-plant scandal.
Here's the problem: Ms. Wynne is an unreconstructed free-spender. Her list of budget goodies, leaked to the opposition this week, is just another way of buying votes. Indeed, it makes the gas-plant bills look cheap.
The goodies include billions of dollars in corporate welfare in the name of job creation, lower hydro bills for the masses (the masses will still have to pay for the Liberals' ruinous mismanagement of hydro one way or another), even money for infertility treatments. Presumably, the money to pay for these nice things will come from a gang of fairies bearing giant sacks of twinkle dust.
Unfortunately, Ontario's finances aren't pretty. The deficit is north of $10-billion. The government itself acknowledged Wednesday that growth will be slow for years. The longer the province's leadership puts off balancing the budget, the worse the pain will be. And when that day comes, some of the Liberals' biggest supporters – teachers, nurses, university professors and other public-sector workers – will be seriously, unpleasantly surprised.
After 10 years in power, the Liberals are definitely past their sell-by date. So why not just throw them out?
Because the cure looks worse than the disease.
Even my conservative friends (yes, there are a few, even in downtown Toronto) think Mr. Hudak is bad news. He comes across as a small-town bully. His political misjudgments just keep piling up. His attacks on Ms. Wynne over the gas-plant scandal are both shrill and unnecessary. (The facts themselves are bad enough to do the trick.)
In person, he seems like a perfectly nice guy. But in public, he radiates meanness. He's a bit like Mr. Harper, but without the strategic sense or the smarts. More than one distressed conservative has told me she'll have to vote for Ms. Wynne in self-defence.
That's why I hope there's no spring election in Ontario. If it's a choice between eating spinach or eating liver, I'd rather put it off. Besides, that's not the only awful choice. Those of us who live in Toronto can look forward to a fall mayoralty runoff between Rob Ford and Olivia Chow.
Where's the nearest kiosk? I think I need a drink.