NATIONAL REPORT, Saturday, November 22, 2003, p. B01
promises stalking the new premier
Throne speech puts a damper on Liberals' post-election euphoria
McGuinty himself compounds problem of houses on the Oak Ridges
high of a sweeping election victory has given way to a throbbing
hangover for Premier Dalton McGuinty as the stark reality of delivering
on a slew of expensive election promises hits his government.
Just one month after being sworn in as Ontario's 24th premier,
McGuinty has spent much of his time dampening expectations as
he grapples with a projected $5.6 billion deficit.
The tone of
Thursday's throne speech made it clear to Ontario voters who decided
to "choose change" on Oct. 2 that if those changes come
with a big price tag, they will be years, not months, away.
It's a far
cry from the "clean start" the Liberals were hoping
for when they won a landslide victory last month, promising more
efficient health care, smaller class sizes, cleaner air and an
end to the cynicism that gripped Ontario politics after more than
eight years of Conservative government. In the final days of the
election campaign, senior Liberals glowed with anticipation, eager
to make a good early impression with voters and convince them
that their trust was well-placed.
prepared even to take lessons from former premier Mike Harris,
who earned a reputation for keeping his promises after taking
office in 1995, a "brand" that would stick for years
and help the Tories to a second majority victory in 1999.
goal was to avoid missteps and stay focused on implementing their
But just six
weeks later, critics have accused the Liberals of breaking a string
of promises, charges repeated in letters to the editor and on
radio call-in shows, especially in reference to the Liberals'
commitment to halt further home construction on the Oak Ridges
critics lined up to denounce the revised plans that will allow
the public-private partnership agreements to build two new hospitals
in Ottawa and Brampton to proceed largely intact. Although final
ownership of the hospitals reverts to the government under the
plan, critics say the change is nothing more than tinkering.
deficit problem the Liberals inherited accounts for some of his
tougher days over the past few weeks, the moraine issue was compounded
by McGuinty himself.
risk-free days of opposition, the Liberals vowed for almost a
year that 6,600 planned new homes to be built on the Oak Ridges
Moraine would not go up if they formed the next government.
On Oct. 16,
as he prepared to take over the government, McGuinty repeated
that commitment, even as bulldozers continued to clear the land
for construction, thereby upping the ante in an increasingly heated
battle with the powerful development industry.
delivering a message through you tonight to tell those people
involved that we intend to stand up for the protection of that
environmentally sensitive space," he said to reporters at
the time. "They aren't making any more moraines."
promise raised hopes in the environmental community and among
Richmond Hill opponents of the expansion. But those hopes were
soon dashed as Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen signalled
that the government was, in fact, climbing down from a war with
developers who already had government approval to proceed with
developers have run this province for long enough. We thought
this was the chance to put an end to it and we are very disappointed,"
said Josh Matlow of Earthroots, and a former Liberal candidate.
A hasty, two-week
freeze on new construction followed as the Liberals scrambled
to come up with what they say is the best possible deal to protect
the moraine without spending precious taxpayer money to compensate
the developers to get out of the contracts. The freeze expired
on Thursday with a deal that allows for the construction of 5,700
As for the
deficit left by the Tories, McGuinty said during the campaign
that the Liberals had a plan to deal with it, assuming it would
be roughly $2 billion.
Then, on Oct.
29, former provincial auditor Erik Peters issued a report on the
state of the province's finances, pegging the deficit at $5.6
billion. The next day, McGuinty announced he was breaking his
election commitment to maintain the 4.3 cent per kilowatt hour
price cap on hydro rates until 2006.
The move was
heralded by the power industry, which had said the artificially
low rate was a deterrent to new investment in desperately needed
argue that the subsidy is costing taxpayers more than $700 million
a year and cannot continue.
logic, the Liberals nonetheless must prepare themselves for the
inevitable backlash when consumers' hiked hydro bills start arriving
in the mailbox, likely sometime in the new year. Details of the
new pricing scheme are expected next week.
promises have pushed the Liberal message of hope into the background.
But one promise
that the Liberals have moved on concerns auto insurance rates.
first, brief cabinet meeting after being sworn in on Oct. 23,
the new government stopped approvals of auto insurance rate hikes
as part of a pledge to first freeze and then roll back rates by
10 to 15 per cent within 90 days.
point came when Education Minister Gerard Kennedy fired the three
Tory-appointed supervisors running the public school boards in
Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton- a signal that elected trustees would
be placed back in charge.
In terms of
performance, McGuinty has handled himself well in these early
days, travelling directly from his swearing-in ceremony to a premiers'
conference in Quebec city.
confident and focused at the meeting, earning praise from several
of his colleagues around the table, particularly Manitoba Premier
Gary Doer, with whom the Ontario premier had a private dinner.
He has survived
sometimes intense media scrums well and those close to him say
he is putting in long days in his Queen's Park office. For the
most part, McGuinty has been out of the public eye, taking a pass
on the countless social invitations that have arrived on his desk,
and instead has been poring over briefing books.
working, just working right now, trying to get ready for the session,"
says a senior aide.
Most of the
legislation expected next week will deal with tax measures promised
by the Liberals during the campaign, such as rolling back corporate
tax cuts, cancelling personal income tax cuts that were to take
effect in January, and scrapping tax credits for parents who send
their children to private schools and education property tax rebates
in this session will be symbolic gestures that cost little if
anything, such as enshrining the Canada Health Act into Ontario
The new premier's
cabinet appointments were well-received by pundits and Liberal
supporters and his caucus appears to be united, despite some disappointed
veterans who were hoping for a cabinet post and overlooked.
But the rough
inaugural month has raised some eyebrows among backbenchers who
are finding they cannot get any information out of their own government
about pending announcements, even when they are in their own ridings.
potential staff are also frustrated that the screening process
in place to hire aides for ministers is proceeding too slowly,
resulting in poorly briefed ministers who must rely too heavily
on the non-partisan civil service to do work that is political
of the seven NDP members of the Legislature- who are deemed independents
after they failed to reach the eight-seat threshold for party
status- is also striking a sour note with some Liberal backbenchers,
who say they should be granted official status.
party received the votes of more than 600,000 Ontario voters and
that should count for more than independent status," says
one new Liberal MPP.
offer to the NDP of some money and a regular presence in question
period silenced some of those critics, but NDP Leader Howard Hampton
insists that it's not enough and he promises to continue with
some of the procedural hijinks his caucus used this week in the
many campaign promises have left them with precious little "wiggle
room," says University of Western Ontario political scientist
the commitment to place a cap of 20 students on classes from junior
kindergarten to Grade 3, Noel says expectations are high and any
wavering will be seen as a broken promise, even if it makes financial
sense to hold off or bend the rules in extreme circumstances.
is an expensive promise, but one that was made in such a specific
manner that they have no choices open to them," Noel says,
adding that even if the government achieves a near-perfect success
rate before the next election, any failings will still amount
to broken promises.
he has some sympathy for the Liberals because their 1999 election
loss was blamed on their thin platform and vague commitments.
This time, they substituted specifics for generalities, but are
paying the price. On the upside, Noel points out, these first
few weeks have been filled with distractions for Ontarians who
keep an eye on the political landscape.
they've had a fairly easy ride with the public," Noel says.
the federal level, along with the municipal elections, have given
the Liberals a chance to get organized at Queen's Park.
But with the
new Legislative session under way and the new premier facing his
first question period on Monday, the honeymoon might be short-lived.
reliance on the "Tory deficit" as an excuse to postpone
action will wear thin with voters by spring at the latest.
of the group People for Education, says children's educations
will not be improved with platitudes and kind promises of changes.
is that we need a balance between all the consulting and the listening
and the outreach that they're talking about and acting on their
promises," she says. "One doesn't replace the other."
Kidder says the education community is looking for answers on
pending school closings, school board budget shortfalls and students
who risk not graduating because they cannot pass the Grade 10