Toronto Star
NATIONAL REPORT, Saturday, November 22, 2003, p. B01

Broken 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 Moraine

Caroline Mallan
Toronto Star

The emotional 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.

They were 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.

The Liberals' goal was to avoid missteps and stay focused on implementing their agenda.

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 Moraine.

Yesterday, 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.

While the 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.

During the 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.

"I'm 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."

The renewed 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 construction.

"The 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 houses.

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 power generation.

The Liberals argue that the subsidy is costing taxpayers more than $700 million a year and cannot continue.

Despite the 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.

The broken promises have pushed the Liberal message of hope into the background.

But one promise that the Liberals have moved on concerns auto insurance rates.

At McGuinty's 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.

Another high 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.

McGuinty appeared 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.

"He's 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 for seniors.

Other bills in this session will be symbolic gestures that cost little if anything, such as enshrining the Canada Health Act into Ontario law.

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.

Staff and 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 in nature.

The treatment 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.

"That 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.

An 11th-hour 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 Legislature.

The Liberals' many campaign promises have left them with precious little "wiggle room," says University of Western Ontario political scientist Sid Noel.

Pointing to 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.

"This 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.

Noel says 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.

"I think they've had a fairly easy ride with the public," Noel says.

Events at 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.

Noel says reliance on the "Tory deficit" as an excuse to postpone action will wear thin with voters by spring at the latest.

Annie Kidder, of the group People for Education, says children's educations will not be improved with platitudes and kind promises of changes.

"My concern 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."

Specifically, 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 literacy test.