New premier, same old ideas

Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne would like to make one thing perfectly clear. She is not like Dalton McGuinty.  Or so she says. Wynne’s agenda has a ring of familiarity.

She wants changes to the federal equalization program, so that Ontario can get a greater reward for its have-not status. Equalization was a familiar McGuinty whine. Of course, to pay Ontario more would mean higher taxes or greater debt at the federal level, but that’s not Wynne’s problem.

Wynne wants more affordable housing. Again, she wants the feds to pay the tab.

Wynne want to spend billions of dollars on transit. That’s long overdue, but PCs would pay for it by using some of the money taxpayers have tied up in the booze and gambling businesses. Wynne says she will rely on “new revenue streams.”  That’s the latest euphemism for new taxes. Drivers have already paid for roads with property taxes, income taxes and gas taxes.  Like McGuinty, Wynne has never seen a problem that a new tax and more spending can’t solve.

Jobs and eliminating the $12 billion deficit are surely the top priorities in Ontario. Even the NDP knows that jobs are important, although leader Andrea Horwath wants to create them by giving tax dollars to companies so they can hire temporary workers. Even that is more of a plan than Wynne has.

Wynne did mention the deficit, vowing to stick to McGuinty’s snail-like plan to eliminate it in five years. With debt accumulating at $1 billion a month, that’s far, far too slow.  Modest though their goal is, the Liberals have never had a real plan to accomplish it. Still don’t.

One other point of similarity between McGuinty and Wynne. McGuinty was so concerned about what a legislature committee would unearth about his rash plan to cancel two gas plants that he prorogued the legislature and made his getaway. Wynne has rejected a public inquiry into the gas plants fiasco. OK, but the reason has to make you smile. After blowing a minimum of $230 million cancelling the gas plants to save Liberal seats, Wynne now says the inquiry would cost too much money.  Maybe this is how the Liberals define thrift. Wynne hasn’t said if she will bring back the committee, as the PCs want.

When you look at the details, Wynne’s new agenda sure looks a lot like McGuinty’s old agenda; beg for federal money, raise taxes, increase spending and duck responsibility. Welcome to the “new” Ontario.

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Deficit Wynne’s real credibility test

Now that premier-designate Kathleen Wynne is leaving the idea-free zone of the Liberal leadership race, she will have to quickly craft a credible plan to eliminate the province’s $11.9 billion deficit. That would be a first that would have real meaning for Ontario voters.

The absence of any deficit-ending strategy has been a problem the Liberals have had for the last five years. Sure, they can show you a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper and say that they will eliminate the deficit in five years, but there is no plan behind the numbers. Five years is way too long to address this problem, too.

Within the context of the Liberal party, Dalton McGuinty and Treasurer Dwight Duncan were the fiscal hawks. More like sparrows, really, but now the Liberals have a leader whose ideas are indistinguishable from those of the big spending NDP.

Wynne tried to portray herself as a centrist candidate during the election campaign, but she also said she wants to be the “social justice” premier.  That’s code for a lot more social spending that taxpayers can’t afford. PCs think that social justice comes about when people have equal opportunity and the province has a growing economy that creates jobs. If government programs alone could create social justice, we’d have it by now.

There are some misconceptions about the differences among the three parties and why the minority legislature isn’t working better than it is. Wynne seems to share those misconceptions. She said on the weekend that she and opposition leaders Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath  “have to continue to work out our disagreements.”

This is not marriage counselling. The PCs have a fundamentally different view of the future of Ontario than the one expressed by the Liberals and the NDP.  We believe that eliminating the province’s deficit is an urgent priority, not something on the “to do later” list. We believe that smarter policies from government can get the economy moving again. For example, Wynne has talked about consulting municipalities about the location of future wind and solar projects. The real point here is that we don’t need the power, we are paying a premium for it, and we are dumping it to the Americans at a loss. We just need to stop doing it.

The PCs’ plan for Ontario is based on a careful examination of what is working around the world, and on a firm grasp of economics.  What will the Liberals cobble together to compete?

The kind of group hug Wynne engaged in with fellow Liberals on the weekend is heartwarming, but it won’t solve Ontario’s real problems.

PC education plan addresses tough reality

The education discussion paper the Ontario PCs released Thursday will be an interesting test of whether people in Ontario are serious about eliminating the province’s massive deficit. The deficit is either $14 billion or $12 billion, depending on how provincial  treasurer Dwight Duncan is guesstimating in a given week, but let’s just say that it’s not going to disappear without actually reducing government’s spending by billions of dollars.

That’s a job that can and must be done, but it will mean making some tough decisions. As Duncan himself said this week, the Liberals have only taken the “low-hanging fruit,” in their own attempt at balancing the books.  He also added that an increase in interest rates is a “ticking time bomb” that will cost taxpayers $500 million for every percentage point of increase. The PCs have been making the same point. Nice to see Duncan catch up. Too bad he didn’t do anything about it.

Ontario needs to act immediately to get government spending under control. We are racking up debt at the rate of at least $1 billion a month, and total debt has nearly doubled under Premier Dalton McGuinty. We now owe $18,000 for every man, woman and child in Ontario.

The education spending reductions the PCs suggested this week are the same ones identified by economist Don Drummond’s exhaustive review of provincial spending, released a year ago. Drummond is not ideological, just pragmatic. He looked at the Liberals’ slightly smaller class sizes, at the explosion in the number of non-teaching staff and at the $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, and said he couldn’t find compelling evidence that the benefits justified the cost.

Drummond proposed slightly larger classes, fewer non-teachers and cancellation of full-day kindergarten to save about $2.5 billion. PCs will accept his first two ideas, making classes two or three students larger and reducing 10,000 jobs held by those who are not classroom teachers. That’s a reduction in that group of about 11.8 per cent. We propose to stop the expansion of full-day kindergarten, to do a thorough study of its benefits. It is interesting to see those who claim the program is based on scientific evidence oppose what would be the broadest real-life test of what it accomplishes.

Politicians traditionally fear reducing any government program, because they know some people won’t like it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be done. Any party that is being honest with you will tell you that Ontario’s budget can’t be balanced without reducing spending, and spending can’t be cut enough to balance the budget without some reduction in education, the second largest expense government has.

One of the most compelling pieces of context is that education spending over the last decade has gone up $8.5 billion while the number of students has actually gone done by 250,000. Despite the drop in enrolment, there are 24,000 more people working in the schools. Nearly 14,000 of those are not classroom teachers.

It’s difficult to see the results all this extra spending has produced. Progress on standardized tests of reading, writing and arithmetic has plateaued, and the latest international testing in science shows that our students are falling behind.

For me, one of the most compelling points in the PC education paper is the plan to raise expectations for our kids and our schools. Ontario has a standard of 75 per cent of students reaching a competency level on standardized tests. The standard has mostly not been met, but the shocking thing is that it leaves 25 per cent of kids behind. The current government will be satisfied if one-quarter of our children can’t master math, reading and writing. What chance will they have at success in life?

The PCs want to raise the standard of expectation to 90 per cent, a number long suggested by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, which runs the testing.

Just raising standards won’t produce a result, of course, but a high target demands action. That means making far higher achievement on reading, writing and math the top goal for our schools. That has implications for teaching methods and how classroom time is spent.

For too long in Ontario, we have equated success with dollars spent. That doesn’t work, and we can’t afford to keep doing it. Ontario needs a sustainable budget and a sustainable education system. When the Liberals say they can only protect smaller classes and full-day kindergarten by freezing teachers’ pay, that’s an admission that what we have today is unaffordable.

The PCs will balance the books by making a series of realistic decisions about what spending offers real value. There is really no other choice.

I encourage you to read the education discussion paper and make up your own mind. It’s available at www.ontariopc.com/paths.

 

McGuinty’s secret deals will cost you

Interesting report in the Toronto Star today. Premier Dalton McGuinty has been meeting in secret with union leaders to try to work out a wage deal. That’s a problem because when you put the words “secret, union and Dalton McGuinty” together, bad things happen.

This would be the same premier who made a secret deal with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union in 2008. The public, and other unions, were told that OPSEU members were getting a two per cent raise. A separate, second deal gave them an additional raise in 2012, but it was kept quiet.

The bottom line is that we can’t trust this premier to put the public’s interest first when it comes to negotiating union contracts. We can’t even trust him to tell us what’s going on.

Now he has conveniently dismissed the legislature so he can work out another secret deal. The unions won’t accept his pale version of a wage freeze, that being a freeze that doesn’t affect everyone and is only phased in gradually. Why would they accept any deal unless it was even softer?

The Progressive Conservative wage freeze plan is easy to explain. People in the broader public sector would make the same next year as they make this year. Everyone is included. That’s the only fair approach. The freeze is necessary to give the government breathing room for fundamental, structural change.

The McGuinty plan, or at least the one we have been told about, will take years to roll out. Meanwhile, the provincial debt will continue to mount. And there is no plan for structural change. In fact, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan says his government is unwilling to lay off a single bureaucrat.

Watch for McGuinty to try to cut deals that will make his Liberal Party look better at your expense. We already know that’s what he does and he doesn’t care what it costs. That’s the lesson of the gas plant fiascos, that will cost Ontario taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

McGuinty is flying solo on this one. He has made sure that Opposition MPPs have no say. Even his own members are out of the loop.

It’s one man government from a thoroughly discredited premier.

 

Hypocrisy all Liberals have left

Funny how it worked out. The premier said he was leaving, but in reality, everyone else has been sent home and Dalton McGuinty is still there.

That’s the net effect of McGuinty suspending the work of the legislature until he decides that your elected representatives should be allowed to do their jobs again. It’s a power that kings can only dream of.

McGuinty will leave, eventually, but in the meantime, it will be one-man rule for Ontario. Not only will be be spared the bother of dealing with pesky questions from the opposition, he will even take his few remaining key ministers out of the equation by insisting that they resign if they want to run for the leadership. Just a bit more classic hypocrisy from the guy who just resigned but retained his position.

Speaking of hypocrisy, my Liberal opponent in Ottawa West-Nepean employed a classic Liberal tactic Tuesday when it he argued that it was the opposition that was really responsible for proroguing the legislature. This is a familiar Liberal approach, blame your opponents for something you did. Bob Chiarelli wants you to believe that it is the “political issues” of Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath that have brought the legislature to a halt, and that those actions are threatening the province’s credit rating.

Sorry Bob. Not quite. McGuinty suspended the legislature because he wanted to avoid taking the heat for his role in the gas plant scandals, and to allow his party time to pick a new leader without fear of an election. Political? I think so. And the credit rating problem is entirely down to years of irresponsible spending and big deficits by the Liberals. That and the lack of any plan to get out of the mess they have made.

The best thing the Liberals could do now is admit responsibility for the mess they have made. Don’t hold your breath.

New blog

Thanks to all those who followed my columns and blogs at the Ottawa Citizen. This new blog will be mostly about Ontario provincial politics. I’m the PC candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean, but I was a critic of the Liberals long before I ever contemplated entering politics. It has been painful to watch the McGuinty government stumble from one mistake to another. Time for a change.