The Case For Dalton McGuinty

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Yes, the case for Dalton McGuinty.

As the Ontario election approaches, I still haven’t decided who I am going to vote for, though I have a pretty good idea of who I won’t be voting for. To help work out my thoughts, I thought I’d start a four part series on all the possibilities, posting it here on the off-chance that you’ll be interested. So, today, I’ll start with the incumbent; the man currently leading in the polls, and list the reasons why he is worthy of my vote.

The fact is, that I don’t think I’ll be voting for him. There isn’t enough here for me to break my ten-year streak of not voting Liberal. However, I figure that Dalton McGuinty already has plenty of people not voting for him who would be happy to explain why. I myself would rather take a more positive approach and talk up the good sides of the various candidates for premier. We don’t do this often enough in politics and, besides, I like the challenge.

And I have to admit that this time around I was tempted to vote for McGuinty.

I’m also writing in response to this post from Sandy Crux, who expresses the frustration of a number of Conservatives who can tell that the campaign isn’t going as well as they would like:

I am really angry! I can’t believe so many Ontarians are being taken in by the faith-based school proposal. It doesn’t seem to matter that Dalton McGuinty has lied and broken most of his promises, that he implemented the highest tax increase in Ontario’s history, that health care is a mess ( a fact I know because I just spent some time in it) and that, instead, the Ontario Liberal Party gives taxpayers money to special interest groups who will vote for them. It also seems like Dalton McGuinty can shun cancer patients and get away with it.

This is the refrain of any idealistic person who has the misfortune of finding themselves on the losing side of an election. Sandy now knows how many Ontarians felt when Mike Harris was elected. Or Bob Rae. Or Brian Mulroney in 1988. Or Jean Chretien in 1997. To those feel passionately about the justice behind their cause, they find it unfathomable that a lot of people (or, worse yet, most people) can casually decide to vote a different way, especially in the face of what one feels should be obvious evidence of the foolishness of one’s opponent’s policies, or their broken promises, or whathaveyou.

It’s a hard lesson, but one should not forget that democracy is messy. It is entirely possible to discover that a majority of people disagree with your point of view, and as shocking or frustrating as that may be, the challenge is to remember that this is their democratic right. We are all individuals with different priorities, different points of view, and different interpretations of the “facts”, and we must avoid the temptation to label our opponents as being fools or rogues simply because they’ve committed the crime of disagreeing with us.

There are real reasons out there why perfectly decent people might decide to give Dalton McGuinty a second chance. Sandy herself touches upon it with her frustration about the focus this election has given to the debate over funding for religious-run schools. I feel this frustration as well, because I went into this election focused on urban infrastructure in general and public transportation in particular. This long-ignored and growing problem (costing the economy billions per year) had only just made it onto the radar of all three party leaders when suddenly we’re debating a $400 million policy affecting just over 50,000 Ontarians. I was mad as hell that this phantom issue overshadowed a debate that had real repercussions for Ontario’s future.

But it’s here where I received the greatest temptation to break my ten-year non-Liberal voting streak because, whether the other party leaders like to admit it or not, Dalton McGuinty set the standard. His detailed Move Ontario 2020 proposal (described here) was the boldest plan to improve public transportation in the Greater Toronto Area ever offered by any provincial government in a generation. Yes, McGuinty has a credibility problem to overcome (more on that later), but the plan was detailed, with a credible funding formula, focusing on proposals that had already been heavily studied and were ready to go. With Move Ontario 2020, my sense is that we’re done talking, and we’ll have shovels in the ground by 2011.

This does not excuse McGuinty’s broken promises, or questions about his handling of autism patients or cancer patients, but for the majority of Ontarians, this is something that will affect them personally and positively, and Hampton and Tory have been playing catch-up ever since. Hampton has basically responded by suggesting that voters give McGuinty a minority mandate so that the NDP can hold the Liberals’ feet to the fire. Meanwhile John Tory has been cagier about what the Conservatives will do for public transportation if elected, but some members of his campaign have accused McGuinty of stealing their ideas in this area. They could give this allegation more credibility if they could put forward their own plan with as big a price tag, just as concrete projects, and its own nifty name.

And that’s what it comes down to. In 2007 McGuinty leads a province where the economy is still good for most Ontarians, where health care and education still serve us well (despite Sandy’s own variable experience, I can at least attest that the medical services my family required over the past four years, both wanted and unfortunately necessary were conducted exceptionally well, and with no cost to me — this strikes me as a system that works), and where there is less sense of a system under strain, at the low ebb of its morale as it was four years ago, as Harris and Eves tried to contain costs. And while McGuinty’s first term leaves a lot to be desired, he has accomplished much of what he set out to do, including transferring a portion of the gas tax to the cities, giving Toronto powers under the City of Toronto Act, and establishing the Greenbelt, protecting a substantial amount of territory through the Oak Ridges Moraine.

There is a lot of anger over McGuinty’s most famous of his broken promises (“I will not raise your taxes, but I won’t lower them either), and his treatment of autistic families is inexcusable (but unfortunately not something most Ontarians are paying attention to), but when the Conservatives claimed that McGuinty had broken precisely fifty election promises, many Ontarians saw the suspiciously round number as an exercise in political hyperbole and tuned out accordingly.

Several of the broken promises are actually aspects of the same broken promise that McGuinty has a comeback for — the “surprise” $5.6 billion deficit that Ernie Eves left behind (actually, most people knew it was there, except, apparently, Ernie Eves, and McGuinty is engaging in a lie of omission by suggesting that the deficit was such a surprise that they could not have adjusted their platform accordingly). Indeed, the “broken promise” of the Liberals not following its own balanced budget policy is a catch-22, since when the promise was made, the Liberals officially took Eves at his word when he said that had left behind a balanced budget. To keep their balanced budget promise in the face of the uncovered deficit would have resulted in many more broken promises. Ontarians understand this, I think, and thus see the attacks on McGuinty’s record being made from individuals who have the luxury of not having to make the tough choices that McGuinty was elected to make. Even the statement, that the Liberals’ hated $2.6 billion health care premium was the “highest tax increase ever”, was quickly shown to be in error.

…measured as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) or of government revenues, the health tax is actually smaller than the tax hikes introduced in at least two previous budgets: 1992 (when the NDP was in power and Bob Rae was premier) and 1981 (when the Conservatives were in power and Bill Davis was premier).

(snip!)

A spokesperson for the Conservative campaign dismissed these numbers as insignificant. “In straight nominal dollars, it (the tax increase) is the biggest ever, which is the way most people would consider it,” he said.

An NDP spokesperson also argued that the 2004 tax hike was bigger when measured “in current dollars, not as a proportion of the economy or the budget.”

But to compare tax revenues today to those of 15 or 26 years ago without taking inflation into account is to compare apples and oranges. A proportional comparison is far more meaningful, although it does not suit the rhetoric of the Conservatives and New Democrats.

And then there is the issue of the loss of manufacturing jobs that Hampton in particular has been haranguing McGuinty about. And this is a case, frustratingly, where all three party leaders are committing lies of omission. Hampton and Tory are right about the fact that there have been hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs lost, but McGuinty is right that our jobless rate is extremely low, and that new jobs are being created.

What nobody seems willing to say is that Ontario is going through a massive structural shift in its economy, away from a manufacturing base into a service/information base. Ontario is a leader in all of the industries that will count over the next few decades, including high tech, nanotech and biotech. As much as the manufacturing job losses are a tragedy, they’re unavoidable, because globalization is not going to go away, and no matter how low our dollar is pushed, no matter how low our taxes our pushed, there’s no way we’re going to keep these jobs when we’re competing with low-skill workers in the developing world willing to work for pennies an hour. McGuinty is being somewhat disingenuous by claiming that nothing is wrong, but Hampton and Tory are being equally disingenuous by claiming that McGuinty can do anything about it. Only Hampton is taking the correct path and advocating an increase in education and job retraining programs to cover the gap between the low skilled industrial labour base and the high skilled information job base.

Finally, the fact that McGuinty has only been in charge for one term may also be keeping his campaign alive. Ontarians upset by the health care premium but intrigued by Move Ontario 2020 and other measures, might be willing to give McGuinty one more term to make up for his mistakes (especially with regard to his treatment of autism patients). They want to see how McGuinty would fare now that he has his balanced budget, now that he is talking about a massive investment in public transportation, and now that the issue of municipal downloading is finally on the table. If this were the end of McGuinty’s second term rather than just his first, the task of re-electing him would be much, much harder.

So, while Ontarians resent McGuinty acting as an average politician, they see him as just an average politician and not the spawn of Satan. Worse, flaws in the Tory attack plan have rendered the Conservatives as no better than average politicians in the eyes of Ontarians who then ask, why go with the devil you don’t know over the devil you do? Their assessment of McGuinty is the same now as it was when they elected him: that he is an average politician offering staid managerial leadership. While challenges remain to this province’s future, the budget is balanced, services are being maintained, and the government is at least addressing the issues that are coming to the fore for most Ontarians (including and especially public transportation and municipal infrastructure). Finally, there is the question of whether Dalton has had sufficient time to meet Ontario’s challenges.

Ontarians aren’t blind, and they aren’t stupid, any more than Albertans are blind or stupid for maintaining a Conservative dynasty for 35 years. Ontarians are just being individual voters reserving their judgement on their current leadership and his possible replacements. It’s frustrating to be in disagreement with such people when you’ve made up your mind, but that’s the price of living in a democracy. Personally, I think it’s a small price, given the alternatives.


Next: The Case For John Tory.

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