What does Kathleen Wynne have against hairstylists? The nice young woman who snips my bangs would like to know. To her surprise, she is now being regulated by a new body called the Ontario College of Trades. It wants her to fork over $120 every year (plus tax) for a piece of paper saying she's qualified to do her job. In order to get a licence, hairstylists already log 1,500 hours of school, write exams and serve apprenticeships. Now they must also have a Grade 12 diploma and pass a written government test. But hey! When it comes to protecting the public from rogue snippers, you can never be too careful.
The hairdresser tax is a small but potent example of what's gone wrong in Ontario over the past decade. As manufacturing evaporated and jobs dried up, the Liberal government threw sand in the gears. All its instincts are regulatory and interventionist. At a time when we desperately need smaller businesses to create jobs, it has ratcheted up the cost of doing business and smothered them in red tape. Meanwhile, it's kept spending as if the good times never stopped. Prudent Ontarians used to deplore Quebec – those profligate French! – as the free-spending wastrel of Confederation. But now, we're the wastrel. Our dour Scottish accountant forebears must be spinning in their graves.
Ms. Wynne, the Premier of Ontario, is now in full election mode. Her main campaign promise is that she is trustworthy. Unlike those reckless parties to the left and right, she has "safe hands." Unlike them, she won't steer us off the cliff.
But we're already heading off the cliff. The provincial deficit is ballooning. According to Livio Di Matteo in a recent Fraser Institute report, we have the third-lowest rate of private-sector job creation in the country. We've had the slowest growth of all the provinces for a decade. We've been poorer than the rest of the country since 2005, and today we are 5.6 per cent poorer. GDP per person in the rest of Canada is $48,463. In Ontario, it's $45,933.
If you happen to live elsewhere, don't feel too smug. We're so big that our problems drag you down, too.
Forget about the money wasted on the gas plant scandal. That's nothing. The real scandal is that the Liberals' main economic strategy is to pray for a miracle. In an age of (probably long-term) lower growth, this isn't going to work. Somebody, some time, is going to have to make some choices. One suspects that Ms. Wynne's pension plan proposal is just a shiny bauble to distract us from the awful truth.
She has other swell ideas. She's going to soak the rich some more, always a popular move even though it invariably fails to bring in as much money as expected. To show that she has an "industrial strategy," she's going to create a $2.5-billion honeypot of free money, available to companies that don't need it for things they'd most likely do anyway. She will even issue Green Bonds, which are just like the regular kind except that they'll cost the taxpayers more.
As Ms. Wynne never tires of saying, she believes in "making government a force for good." But my hairdresser doesn't think so. Most middle-class voters say they don't need more government help. They don't think that governments are very good at delivering big public programs, and they think that plenty of public-sector workers are overpaid and spoiled. The last thing they want is more government.
In many ways Ontario's election will be a referendum on that question. The next decade will be all about making governments more effective, not bigger. But Ms. Wynne is transfixed by the rear-view mirror. We're driving off the cliff and she's stepping on the gas.