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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Editorial: The choice in Ontario's election

Globe and Mail
Saturday, Sep. 27, 2003

Governments defeat themselves. Seldom has that old saw seemed so right as it does in Ontario today.According to the latest opinion poll, the Conservative government of Premier Ernie Eves will take a drubbing when voters cast their ballots in a provincial election on Thursday. If so, Mr. Eves will have no one to blame but himself. Voters judge incumbents on two things: their record in government and their plans for the future. In each case, Mr. Eves has been a comprehensive failure.

When Mr. Eves took over from Mike Harris in March, 2002, the province and its government were in reasonable shape. In the previous six years, the Harris government had cut taxes, whittled down the budget deficit, introduced needed reforms to the schools and started cleaning up the mess at debt-burdened Ontario Hydro. Mr. Harris was tough and often needlessly divisive, but much of what he did was only -- yes -- common sense.

As Mr. Harris's lieutenant and former finance minister, Mr. Eves could have chosen to continue with the Tory program, softening the message here, reinvesting there, but essentially staying the course. Instead, he burst from the starting gate like an overmedicated racehorse, bucking this way and that, spooked by every twitch in the opinion polls.

When the polls seemed to show that Ontarians were sick of Mr. Harris's tough love, Mr. Eves bucked left, delaying a planned private-school tax break and dodging the Tories' own taxpayer-protection law. When recent signals indicated he was losing conservative supporters, he veered right, telling voters that he supported the death penalty and opposed same-sex marriage while complaining that loose federal immigration rules were letting terrorists and criminals into Ontario.

When Hydro rates threatened to soar as a provincial election approached, he leaped right over the guardrail. In a decision that will hurt the province for years, he froze electricity rates for households till 2006 -- in one stroke discouraging both conservation and investment.

There were many other missteps. Mr. Eves showed contempt for the traditions of parliamentary democracy when he delivered a budget in an auto-parts plant instead of the legislature. He indulged in a low form of union-baiting and teacher-bashing when he promised a ban on strikes during the school year. Seldom in recent Canadian political history has a government gone so badly off track so fast. Except for getting elected, Mr. Eves does not seem to have a clue what he stands for.

Given this abysmal record, it was never likely that Mr. Eves would emerge the winner from the current election campaign. But given the doubts that voters have about the main alternative, Liberal Dalton McGuinty, he might have turned it into a race with a well-thought-out, conservative platform. Instead, he offered an early Christmas package of cheap trinkets and vote-luring gewgaws: a property tax for the elderly, no matter how wealthy; mortgage-interest deductibility for homeowners, whether in mansions or tenements; a revived private-school tax break.

Voters, bless their souls, are not buying it. People demand four things of governments: consistency, authenticity, character and competence. From Mr. Eves, they have had flip-flops, phoniness, opportunism and bumbling. Barring an act of God, they will toss him, saloon doors swinging, into the dusty street on Thursday.

Ah, but what about the new cowboy striding through the doors? If Mr. Eves is all over the map, Mr. McGuinty is consistent. He's in favour of everything noble and good: health care, education, balanced budgets, low taxes; more hospital beds, smaller classes, better air. Every day and every way, he wants to make Ontario better and better.

Nothing wrong with that. Mr. McGuinty is obviously sincere when he says he wants the best for Ontario. A family man with four children, a devoted wife and solid family values, he is clearly decent, honest, hard-working and well-meaning -- the kind of guy you would want as a neighbour. He has clearly grown in the job since becoming Liberal leader and losing his first bid for the premiership in 1999. Though Mr. Eves's campaign ads sneer that he was "still not up to the job," Mr. McGuinty is smoother, more confident, more serious and better briefed.

But good character and good intentions do not add up to a program of government. Nowhere in his campaign has there been a sign that he is ready to make the hard choices demanded of a premier. Much of his program is either wrong in principle (a return to rent controls) or unaffordable (a cap of 20 students per class in the lower grades). Given that he has said he will not run a budget deficit or raise taxes -- a promise the voters will hold him to -- he will have very little room for expansive spending. What will happen when he has to choose among his umpteen promises? What, beyond making Ontario a better place, are his real priorities? Mr. McGuinty likes to keep focused on his plan. But the world often has plans of its own for political leaders. Mr. McGuinty will need to make good use of his demonstrated capacity to grow on the job.

These troubling questions make it hard to endorse Mr. McGuinty whole-heartedly for premier. But given the ghastly alternative -- another Ernie Eves government -- the choice is clear all same. On Thursday, Ontarians should vote Liberal. Application Error

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