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The Liberals' Ontario: sunshine, lollipops and dopey ideas Add to ...

Here in Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals have created a kerfuffle. Their list of election promises includes a dopey scheme to give a $10,000 tax credit to any business that hires a skilled new immigrant who’s unemployed. This half-baked idea has been correctly denounced as naked pandering to the immigrant vote – even by immigrants themselves.

“I’m absolutely worried,” Fabio Crespin, an immigrant from Brazil, told the CBC. The proposal obviously discriminates against other people who’re unemployed (including all those immigrants who aren’t so new). Worse, he says, it conjures up an “us versus them” scenario of newcomers fighting everyone else for jobs. It also fails to address one of the main causes of immigrant underemployment: the credentials problem. Nurses, speech therapists and engineers don’t need affirmative action; they need to have their credentials recognized, or to have a way to efficiently upgrade them.

But never mind the real world. The Liberals are convinced that micro-pandering to crucial market segments is their key to re-election. And so we have, in no particular order, pledges to bring back doctors’ house calls for the elderly, a “healthy snack” program for schoolchildren, a home renovation tax credit to help your dear old mom install a walk-in shower, a whopping postsecondary tuition cut for the middle class, and a vow to reduce childhood obesity rates by 20 per cent. (Good luck with that.) The Premier will even refund your money if the trains don’t run on time.

I haven’t felt so warm and fuzzy since the Easter Bunny came to town. Vote for the Liberals, and there’ll be chocolate eggs for all! Just make sure you don’t overdose on all the saccharine.

What really bothers me isn’t the cynical opportunism of this approach. It’s not even the silly attempts at social engineering. It’s the sheer fatuousness of it all. The Liberals’ only aim is to reassure the public that, if they’re re-elected, nothing bad will happen and nothing much will change.

But it will.

The Liberals know they’ll have to start “bending the cost curve,” as they say in econo-speak. Bending the cost curve is government’s ugly new imperative. No government, not even Ontario’s, can afford to deliver the services that voters expect, at the current rate of cost increases. Ontario’s spending has gone up by 70 per cent since the Liberals took office in 2003, and even they admit that rate of growth is unsustainable. From now on, they’re pledging to reduce the rate of growth in government from 7 per cent a year to 1.8 per cent. They promise it won’t hurt.

Whenever someone tells you it won’t hurt, you should assume it’s going to hurt like hell. If Ontario wants to maintain its credit rating, the public sector will have to shrink, public-sector wages will have to freeze, and public services will take a hit. Not that Tim Hudak’s Conservatives are any better; they, too, are promising non-invasive surgery with no blood or tears.

Once in a while, someone says something truthful by mistake. “The next four or five years are going to be, I think, monumental, in terms of the kinds of changes we have to make,” Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said last spring, when he hoped no one was listening.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Duncan has created an elite task force to find ways of reinventing public services for a far more straitened age. Its chair, Don Drummond, is a respected economist who doesn’t pull his punches. “Whoever forms the government on Oct. 7 is going to find themselves in a deep fiscal hole,” he told the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn. “The public, certainly, doesn’t completely understand it, and I don’t know whether the political parties completely understand it.”

Dalton McGuinty likes to warn that a Conservative victory means cuts to services as “surely as night follows day.” But so does a Liberal victory. No matter who wins next month, sunshine and lollipops are going to be in short supply.

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