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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Victory behind them, Liberals will first have to tackle the books

But if deficit means promises of the campaign are delayed, victory could bring new era of co-operation, JOHN IBBITSON writes
Globe and Mail
Friday, Oct. 3, 2003

The Liberals swept through Ontario last night like a scythe through hay, decapitating cabinet ministers, uprooting Tory strongholds, leaving Dalton McGuinty with one of the strongest and most emphatic mandates a party leader could wish for.

What does it mean for Ontarians and for Canadians? According to senior sources within the Liberal ranks, it means a budget deficit this year.

It means that promises to improve health care, education and the environment will be delayed.

It also means a new era of co-operation with Ottawa and Quebec City.

And it could mean fresh tensions between Central Canada and the West.

As the giddy young advisers to Mr. McGuinty waited yesterday for the election returns, they feared a too-large majority more than a too-small one.

But the best news for the Liberals could be that they were not too successful. If solid Conservative performers such as Dianne Cunningham and David Young went down to decisive defeat, other cabinet stalwarts such as Jim Flaherty and Elizabeth Witmer appeared to be hanging on, as did such ancient stalwarts Bob Runciman and Norm Sterling. If this offers some solace for the Tories, it is almost a relief for the Liberals, who were beginning to wonder how they might manage an enormous and inevitably restive caucus.

But over all, the gods of Pickering and Burlington and the other all-powerful ridings of the suburban Toronto region who decide elections switched from being virtually unanimous in electing Conservatives to being solidly supportive of Liberals.

That, however, is already last night's news. What matters now is what lies ahead. In conversations with senior Liberal officials, the major concern that emerged was the worsening state of the province's finances, brought on by a sluggish economy and the SARS outbreak.

In consequence, the Liberals plan to allow the provincial government to post a substantial deficit in fiscal 2003-04, which they will blame on the profligate Tories, while vowing to balance the province's books throughout the remaining life of the government. The campaign promises to reduce classroom sizes, improve health care and clean the air will be kept, but expect real results to emerge only toward the end of the mandate.

Whether the Ontario citizenry will forgive the Liberals for taking the province back into the red, however briefly, is as yet an unanswered question.

For the rest of Canada, what will matter most is Mr. McGuinty's relationship with the other premiers and with the federal government. Years of warfare between Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris helped reverse a steady drain in resources and influence from which the province had been suffering. But the war took its toll, and Mr. McGuinty is determined to reap the peace dividend.

When they were both opposition leaders, Mr. McGuinty and Quebec Premier Jean Charest spoke often about mutual goals and strategies. Mr. McGuinty hopes to use the solid basis of that relationship to lower trade barriers between Ontario and Quebec, who have by far the largest trading relationship within the country.

If Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Charest, who know each other well, can reach such an agreement, it could serve as a catalyst for a comprehensive interprovincial trade agreement, via the nascent Council of the Federation, with the enthusiastic support of prime minister Paul Martin.

The Liberals will also be enthusiastic supporters of the proposed National Health Council, leaving Alberta Premier Ralph Klein isolated in his opposition to the new agency. Indeed, with all these happy Liberals busily co-operating at the provincial and federal level, Western conservatives have fresh reason to worry about being frozen out. Ontario, and even Quebec, have been Alberta's and British Columbia's allies in recent struggles against perfidious Ottawa. No more.

For Premier Ernie Eves, who stood almost alone on the stage last evening, to acknowledge the terrible mistake of his return to politics, the worst news of all is that he was not defeated in his own riding, and must find another way to exit political life with grace.

For his party, the major challenge today and tomorrow will be to prevent the party from degenerating into factional strife.

Starting the whole thing off with a budget deficit may not be everyone's idea of a promising first act.

But Ontarians will have four years to judge. Application Error

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