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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Will Grits change big picture?

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2003

Ontario voters may be ready to respond to Dalton McGuinty's invitation to ''choose change,'' but it's doubtful whether they know how much of the stuff they will be getting. The Liberal Leader seems likely to sweep the province in Thursday's election with a platform that has a certain civics-class charm but has been presented only in its broad strokes.

That's the nature of a campaign, of course. No one hates policy more than political reporters. A party leader can lay out a policy in exquisite detail -- as Mr. McGuinty has from time to time -- but it's the offhand remark in a follow-up scrum that reporters will seize upon.

It is also the nature of Liberals. They want to include many people in their big centrist tent and high-minded words are more effective than scrupulously detailed, small-print programs.

But the Liberals have policy. It's contained in 168 pages in nine different booklets issued in the months before the election. It's not exactly five-year-plan stuff (some subjects are covered in a few crisp sentences), but it is remarkably comprehensive.

Most voters will be aware that Mr. McGuinty will end the era of tax cuts and use the money instead to bolster public services but only policy wonks beyond redemption will know that the Liberals want to overhaul the democratic practice in Ontario.

Mr. McGuinty proposes, for example, to emulate B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and hold elections on fixed dates every four years and to hold a referendum -- be still, my heart -- on whether to change the first-past-the-post voting system. There is a pledge to establish "citizens' juries" and to introduce on-line voting, but the real howler is a promise that "we will make sure all non-cabinet MPPs are free to criticize and vote against the government." Can the whole caucus fit in the cabinet room?

Other policies seem well thought out but leave lots of questions. The proposal to abandon class-size averages in favour of a hard cap of 20 pupils in each class is controversial for good reason. Where are all the classrooms and teachers going to come from?

As well, they propose "effective rent control" to help tenants whenever the vacancy rate falls below a trigger rate. But what happens to the cumbersome enforcement apparatus when accommodation is plentiful?

How much would it cost a Liberal government to compensate farmers for all the measures needed to manage manure in a way that does not contaminate groundwater sources?

The pledge to shut down Ontario's five coal-fired electricity-generation plants by 2007 is fraught with practical considerations. Mr. McGuinty believes these plants, which produce 8,000 megawatts or nearly one-third of Ontario's electricity output, could be partly replaced by natural-gas plants built either by the private sector or the government.

The plants could, indeed, be built for about $10-billion but gas prices are expected to rise until the Mackenzie Valley pipeline is finished in 2008 (at the earliest). Gas-fired electricity would be very expensive, which would necessitate a hefty jump in regulated pricing with all the political consequences of such a move.

Other Liberal policies are simply too sketchy to evaluate. Mr. McGuinty promises, for example, to "manage long-term growth in the Golden Horseshoe" and to "protect the greenspace that surrounds our cities, forever" by acquiring a million acres of property in the next 20 years. This is laudatory (and necessary) but there's a reason why successive governments in the past 40 years have failed in similar missions -- property developers have a lot of clout with governments.

Similarly, the Liberals promise to "measure every [government] investment against results" and to "make your tax dollars work harder," which sounds a lot like the boilerplate that all parties trawling for votes feel compelled to issue. In a Liberal world, workfare will work, parents will have access to affordable, quality child care and children will learn more while developing sterling characters.

Oh, it's going to be grand. Application Error

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