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Opinion Ontario’s New Democrats are sounding awfully conservative

Here's a line from the Ontario election: "Ontarians are tired of seeing their hard-earned tax dollars wasted on unnecessary government spending without any oversight or accountability."

Sounds like something red-meat Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak would say, right? Instead, the platitude came from the lips of New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath in announcing one of the stupidest promises yet in a campaign littered with them, from all parties.

Ms. Horwath proposes that if elected premier – which won't happen, of course – she would appoint a Minister Responsible for Savings and Accountability, whose job would be to find savings of 0.5 per cent annually.

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That would be $600-million each year that this minister would find by means yet unknown, and in which departments no one knows. It's one of many dumb populist pitches that forms the basis of an NDP platform that reflects a party almost completely bereft of a vision for Ontario.

The NDP platform and Ms. Horwath's speeches are big on cutting the salaries of high-end public-sector executives, shrinking the roster of cabinet ministers and, that old chestnut, "reducing duplication in government agencies."

This is conservative talk, the notion that government is bloated, run by fat-cat civil servants. If people believe this, no one will vote NDP to solve it. And even if a party did what Ms. Horwath proposes, it would be shaving the top off an iceberg, so paltry would be the savings.

The New Democrats are waving a magic wand in front of Ontarians, as in promising to cut emergency department wait times in half. They (and the PCs) propose to scrap Local Health Integration Networks, but these actually need to be given more power and authority over budgets – as in every other province – not be eliminated.

The NDP's main pitch seems to be "affordability," of the kind the party made in 2011 to cut the HST on gasoline prices, although the promise no longer appears in the formal platform.

Then there are other nickel-and-dime measures, such as removing the HST from heating oil and taking the HST off hydro, measures to be paid for by the NDP's only serious revenue-raising measure: raising corporate taxes, another old party standby.

How raising these taxes will contribute to more jobs, more research and development and more incentive to invest in Ontario is among life's mysteries. It is true that corporate tax rates are only one factor among many influencing corporate decisions. But at the margin of decision-making, raising these taxes will deter rather than encourage more growth – in a province that faces a long-term challenge of slower growth.

Other NDP revenue-raising measures border on make-believe, as in "cut waste with an expenditure management review." What was Don Drummond's massive report into Ontario's spending about if not this? All the NDP has to do is read it and choose from among his options. And here's another tried-and-true beauty of a promise: "Cut consultants by half."

Apart from the generalized bankruptcy of the NDP's platform, what is striking about the party's approach is the strange mixture of traditional nostrums with conservative populism.

Here is a province that, like the whole country, has a poverty challenge, something that used to be a staple of New Democratic discourse. Yet the provincial NDP all but ignores this challenge. It won't touch income inequality, or have much to offer about trying to lift up the disadvantaged. Instead, it frets about gas prices and home heating oil and hydro rates for everyone, presumably because, like the other parties, it is now fixated on the ill-defined "middle class."

What is the NDP for if not to use government to achieve social purposes, rather than chatter on about "waste" and "duplication" and big public-sector salaries and fat-cat consultants? These are tired staples of anti-government rhetoric destined to turn voters against the idea that government is a responsible custodian of taxpayers' dollars. No wonder dissident NDPers have gone public with their dismay at the party's platform.

Ontario's bad fiscal circumstances – a $12.5-billion deficit – work against activist government. Nobody should want money splashed around indiscriminately, which is what Liberals do, but if Ontarians really dislike government, believing it to be the place where taxpayers' dollars go to die, they will vote Conservative, not NDP.

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