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October 16, 2012
TORONTO, ON, Oct. 16,2012/ Troy Media/ – Considering he had stood for re-election as Ontario Liberal leader barely two weeks earlier at the party’s conference, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty surprise resignation has rocked the party.
On of McGuinty’s last acts before announcing he would leave was to prorogue the legislature.
But prorogation can’t stop the dark clouds affecting his administration – Contempt of Parliament proceedings against one of his ministers in connection with the termination of the Mississauga and Oakville power plants; the mismanagement of ORNGE, the air ambulance service; yet another abandoned electronic health service by eHealth Ontario, and the threat of yet another downgrade of the province’s debt – from swirling around Queens Park.
Finally, though, what will McGuinty’s legacy be? Will he be remembered as one of Ontario’s better premiers – or one of its worst?
On education? Let’s place it on the plus side of the ledger. Ontario’s schools now have full-time junior kindergarten and managed class sizes. Accomplishment, according to standardized tests, has improved significantly in the past nine years. Primary and secondary education seems to be a winner. But still waiting to be accomplished is a review of the current curriculum to ensure it is appropriate for student needs in 2015, 2020 and beyond. How do Ontario’s schools compare to the best in the world? They’re good for Canada, good by North American standards, but not yet world class.
Health? Neutral at best. While a broken promise – the OHIP tax, implemented in McGuinty’s first term – did supply more money to health care there have been few postive results. Many of the same problems still haunt us, among them too many citizens without doctors and lengthy queues for specialists and procedures. The province also spent billions on electronic health records and system integration with very little to show for it. But, include a negative mark for the recurring problems in agency management by the Ministry of Health at eHealth Ontario and ORNGE (the air ambulance service).
Transportation infrastructure? A huge negative as McGuinty repeatedly made promises but took no action. Metrolinx, the provincial agency to improve transport in the Greater Toronto/Hamilton Area, has yet to put a money plan in place to support its building aspirations. Delays have meant the airport rail link will be diesel-operated, not electrified, because of the Pan Am Games (2015) deadline. There were unnecessary fights over who builds what, and who runs what. The Premier showed a definite lack of leadership on this file. The one major rollout of Metrolinx – the Presto card implementation at OC Transpo in Ottawa – turned into a botch.
Governance? Another huge negative. Caledonia festered for three years, with native ‘occupation’ deliberately unchallenged (and the devil take the citizens who merely wanted to pass freely to and from their homes and businesses). Government has a primary responsibility to all citizens to uphold the laws it passes. McGuinty deserves any condemnation he received for how he handled the situation.
The public purse? Under McGuinty, provincial spending rose from $70 billion to $126 billion per year. That’s just the provincial budget. Agencies, boards, commissions and crown corporations have blossomed under McGuinty until Ontario has over 630 of them, each with its raft of executives, support staff and the like. The public debt of the province has nearly tripled in the last nine years.
While there’s been labour peace during the McGuinty years, unlike the Eves, Harris and Rae years before him, the province has little to show for all the money that went out the door.
The Green Energy Act has come under considerable criticism, especially with Ontario now selling excess power below cost, but where the plan to build large-scale renewables failed is more in execution. It takes individuals and small community co-ops looking to do small scale solar or wind upwards of four years to navigate the provincial bureaucracies involved to get a project going in response to the potential of the feed-in tariff. The McGuinty approach has been to focus on large-scale power farms and more branch plant manufacturing rather than the long-term benefits of decentralizing power generation in the province. Let’s place the Green Energy Act on the neutral side of the ledger at this point, but with the potential to be a positive under better management.
McGuinty bailed out both GM and Chrysler during the financial crisis of 2008-09, saving the jobs of Ontarians at both those firms and in the broader parts manufacturing sector of the province. It badly increased the debt but has so far turned out passably well – although the bailouts effects on Ford, Toyota and Honda (also Ontario-based assemblers who were not part of the bailout) is yet to be fully understood. Call it a neutral to limited positive.
Finally, McGuinty’s imposition of a ‘nanny state’ (he didn’t get the nickname ‘Premier Dad’ for nothing), no matter the motive, means, overall, Ontarians are now far less free than pre-McGuinty. Many institutions – church schools, for instance – were also forced to violate their religious precepts to follow his legislated requirements. So, thumbs up for a number of the issues tackled, but a black mark overall for the methods used and the inflexibility of the approaches taken.
Was McGuinty even a good politician? While he did enjoy peace within his own party, frankly he did not face enough worthy opposition for us to know for sure. Andrea Horwath, the newish NDP leader, is the first leader to hold a lead in public opinion against McGuinty since he came to power. Credit, however, has to be given for his ability to pull off a substantial minority government in the 2011 election, coming from 15 points behind. Two thumbs up, therefore, for his obvious political skills. (This no doubt explains the Twitter comments by Federal Liberals such as Ujjal Dosanjh almost immediately after the resignation announcement on Monday that hinted at McGuinty as a potential federal Liberal leadership candidate.)
But in the end, after McGuinty, Ontario is left with a downgraded credit rating, and is facing another one. Much of the work to reform and restructure the provincial government – the single biggest reason the province’s deficits are structural and intractable – remains undone. For all of the incessant announcements of one small policy meddle after another, his government effectively dithered away nine years, overspent while doing so, and his ministers repeatedly failed to manage their departments and their agencies well.
McGuinty will, when the history books are written, be remembered much as David Peterson was in the 1980s: a nice man, but not up to the task – but whose inadequacies set the stage for radical changes to follow.
Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Bruce Stewart is a management consultant located in Toronto.
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