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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

All-powerful suburbs will decide this election

Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Sep. 3, 2003

Let's forget about whether Ernie Eves is a befuddled leader of an exhausted government, or whether Dalton McGuinty is an opportunistic shill for the teachers unions.Let's ask the only question that matters: What do the gods of Pickering want?

The gods of Pickering are the middle-class voters who determine both Ontario and federal elections. They don't all live in Pickering, of course. There are about five million of them, in exurban cities from Bowmanville through Oshawa, Pickering, Mississauga and Burlington in the Toronto area, to Ancaster, Cambridge, Nepean and other middle-class enclaves across the province. They vote in large numbers; they tend to vote together; they choose governments. And they get what they want.

Ernie Eves believes they are still greedy. Dalton McGuinty thinks they're scared. The one who is right will be premier after Oct. 2.

The Premier decided yesterday to call a provincial election because, though his hopes of victory are considered slim, to delay until next spring would dim them further. His campaign is basing its strategy on the assumption that the greed of the gods of Pickering is limitless, that they will choose a party that feeds them tax breaks over anything else.

And so the Tory election platform carries on the tradition of 1995 and 1999, when Mike Harris won back-to-back majorities by offering tax cuts, while sticking it to everyone who depended on government for a living.

This time out, Mr. Harris's successor is promising to make a portion of mortgage interest tax-deductible. This is, in effect, a tax on renters, who will not qualify for the tax break. But renters don't vote Conservative.

Mr. Eves used to frown on a proposed provincial subsidy for private-school tuition. Not any more. Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight if they want to send their children to religious schools.

Seniors vote Tory -- at least, the middle-class ones do -- so the Tory platform would also exempt seniors from paying education property taxes, on the principle that older citizens should not be asked to participate fully in the social contract.

And of course there will be another, general round of tax cuts, already announced, that kick in next year, including cuts to upper-income surtaxes. If you are a middle-class taxpayer, the Harris and Eves Conservatives have already put more than $2,000 a year back into your pockets since 1995. And they aim to keep on giving.

Mr. McGuinty, the Liberal Leader, thinks the Tories have finally, fatally misjudged the gods of Pickering. He thinks the suburban middle classes are worried about deteriorating schools, endless strife with teachers unions, rising ethnic tensions, limitless sprawl, deteriorating health care, worsening air.

The Liberals think, intriguingly, that the suburban middle class empathizes more with the problems of the lower-middle and working classes than with the upper-middle and upper classes who live in their gated communities.

So, right off the top, all planned tax cuts will be cancelled, and no new ones introduced. Instead, there will be money for child care, for early-childhood education, for elementary classrooms. And, as the platform puts it, the government will make a point of "treating teachers with the professional respect they deserve."

There's lots more. Rent controls, largely phased out under the Tories, will be reimposed. The Liberals will create a greenbelt around the Golden Horseshoe, to contain urban sprawl. There will be more money for public health care and an end to partial privatization of services. There will be money for new energy sources (and all coal-fired electrical plants will be shut down within four years). There will be; there will be; there will be . . . Oh, there will be no more smoking in public places. Smokers vote Tory.

Two obstacles could keep Mr. McGuinty from becoming Ontario's 24th premier.

The first is that election platform, which defies human nature in assuming that fear and solidarity between the middle and lower classes drives electorates, rather than greed and solidarity between middle and upper classes.

The second is Mr. McGuinty himself, who has yet to shake off his image as a weak and insecure reed. (One insignificant example: He swears gratuitously in public addresses and interviews, sounding like a kid in a locker room trying to impress the big boys.)

But then Mr. Eves has done much to harm, and little to help, his own public image in recent months. And those who believe in the possibility of human redemption will wonder just how many versions of the Common Sense Revolution the gods of Pickering will swallow before they are sated.

A complicated election. But then Ontario is a very complicated place. Application Error

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