For generations, Ontario has been the 'motor' driving Canada. However, if not now completely broken, it is badly in need of comprehensive re-tuning.
Ontario was, and still is, the province with the largest population, the largest city, the region with the greatest wealth and is the national cultural center (at least for Anglophones). As a consequence of its demographic and economic power, it also held political primacy; it was a 'have' province that, with federal redistribution rules and transfer payments, contributed the greatest amount to Canada’s 'have nots.' Its demographic leverage gives it massive presence in Parliament (121 of 338 seats in the next election); it is Canada’s 800-pound gorilla.
Coinciding with this political, economic, and social primacy comes more than a scintilla of arrogance and hubris. During the mid-20th century, Toronto moved past Montreal as the city about which people first thought when Canada came to mind. Toronto was “New York run by the Swiss” for a reputation of clean efficiency while still providing the ethnic, linguistic and racial mix of a great metropolis.
But Ontario’s primacy is no more. Ontario has been belabored by the apparently irreversible 'rust belt' syndrome also afflicting north-central U.S. states epitomized by the collapse of the automobile industry and associated 'big ticket' manufacturing. It is not that Ontario’s economy has collapsed, but bad choices made during periods of wealth and residual belief in wealth-to-come has left the province in a parlous state.
Thus Ontario is packing a debt that in percentage terms is five times that of California, the professed basket case of U.S. indebtedness. It has been accentuated by a plethora of politicized and “politically correct” decisions that will burden Ontario voters for decades. Illustratively, the Liberal government has doubled the provincial debt during its tenure.
But, quite remarkably, Ontario voters appear surprisingly indifferent to their problem.
And therein lies the potential for a totally failed Liberal provincial government to win re-election.
Faced with an election in 2011, “Premier Dad” Dalton McGuinty was beset by a legion of his lies: No tax increases; health care efficiencies; energy production. For transparently political reasons, he cancelled two gas-powered plants at a cost of over $1 billion dollars. Playing scapegoat, McGuinty decamped to Harvard permitting his replacement by Kathleen Wynne, who rather disingenuously suggests that she had nothing to do with the McGuinty era disasters and scandals, but was almost Paul Martinesque (“mad as hell”) in her professions of political virtue and determination to run a trustworthy, transparent government.
After 15 months of keeping a minority government afloat while the Tories and NDP read the polling entrails to determine whether to vote it down, Wynne presented a totally unsustainable, pie-in-the-sky budget promising increased funds for education, infrastructure, and an even larger budget deficit. The sweetner was creation of an Ontario Pension Plan to supplement the (professedly) inadequate Canadian Pension Plan — financed de facto by a payroll tax. Polls suggested, however, that 78 percent of Ontario wanted a new government and, rather than be voted down, Wynne called for a 40-day campaign with election on 12 June.
Why then, with the overhang of scandal, blatant need for financial overhaul and comprehensive appreciation that Ontario begs for change, how is Wynne still seriously contending?
Perhaps partly because, as one commentator put it, “She’s not a meanie … a very nice lady.” She also benefits from beatable opposition. On the left, NDP leader Andrea Howarth still has the legacy of distrust from Bob Rae’s 1990-95 mismanagement of Ontario. On the right, Tory leader Tim Hudak has the charisma of an armchair while promising sacrifice and pain like eliminating 100,000 public workers, rather than hope/change. He is a 'take your castor oil' candidate while Wynne is a mistress of misdirection.
Wynne also has adroitly orchestrated campaign parameters to run against Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who rose to the bait of the proposed Ontario Pension Plan by denouncing it.
Hudak leads early polling, but not decisively; he still has time to stumble.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.