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Exhuming McGuinty

Thursday, March 30, 2006

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Like many political observers, most of my attention has been focussed on federal politics for the past six months. That’s hardly surprising, given that there was a national election in January, but it has had the unintended impact of providing a free ride to our good friends at Queen’s Park. There’s plenty to dislike about what has been going on there as well.

Now that the McGuinty government is well in the second half of its mandate (given that we already know that the next Ontario election will occur in October 2007), it seems reasonable to expect that they would have made substantial progress on honouring some or even most of their election promises. They deserve full credit for meeting a handful of commitments – such as calling the Ipperwash Inquiry and ending the Private School Tax Credit – but their overall record is one of promises broken, delayed or redefined.

Perhaps much of the fault lies with Liberal voters, who wanted so desperately to believe that they were “choosing change” that they failed to properly examine the fine print of those promises. For example, Dalton McGuinty promised that “in our first year of government, we will repeal the misnamed Tenant Protection Act and replace it with an effective tenant protection law. Our law will protect tenants by making unfair rent increases illegal.” But, you’ll note that the promise does not specify that it is referring to a year on Planet Earth. The Liberals could argue that they were referring to a year on some other planet – perhaps Pluto, which takes the equivalent of 248 earth years to orbit the sun (thereby giving them another 245 earth years to keep their promise).

Likewise, when the Liberals promised that they “shut down Ontario’s coal-burning power plants by 2007 and replace them with cleaner sources of energy”, they did not specify that they were using the traditional definitions of the words “shut down” or “replace them with”. It’s possible that, in this particular context, the words actually meant “keep open” and “talk about”. In politics and in life, semantics are important.

When the Liberals promised “access to medically necessary health care services based on need, not on ability to pay”, they never actually provided a comprehensive list of what they considered “medically necessary”. Clearly, eye exams, physiotherapy and chiropractic services – which are no longer funded by the province – are not medically necessary. We know this because Dalton McGuinty has said it is so, and he clearly knows more about medical necessity than health care professionals and even patients themselves. And, once he has decreed that services are not necessary, his government doesn’t need to fund them.

Similarly, when McGuinty promised that “we will freeze taxes for individuals and small businesses”, he was carefully leaving the door open for imposing taxes that they don’t call taxes. That’s why we’re now paying a so-called “health care premium.” It’s not a tax if it’s not called a tax – just like private hospitals are not private if the Liberals refer to them as hospitals funded through “alternative financing mechanisms”. They’re the government, so they get to rewrite the dictionary.

The Liberals also promised to maintain the cap on hydro rates at 4.3 cents a kilowatt/hour until 2006. That promise didn’t last either. In fact, a bill to hike hydro rates was introduced just one month after they took office. As a result, the basic cost of electricity jumped to 4.7 cents per kilowatt/hour in the spring of 2004, with consumption over 750 kilowatt/hours a month billed at 5.5 cents per kilowatt/hour. One could argue that this increase may have been necessary in order to meet another commitment – that “Ontario electricity suppliers obtain at least 5% of their electricity from new, clean, renewable sources by 2007” – except that this promise also seems that have fallen by the wayside.

Before being elected, Dalton McGuinty indicated that he was appalled by the Harris government’s decision to claw back the National Child Benefit Supplement (designed to help reduce child poverty). “The clawback is wrong and we will end it,” he promised. Instead of ending it, his government has capped it, allowing welfare recipients to keep any annual increases in the benefit. Apparently, what was wrong when McGuinty was in opposition – essentially taxing the province’s poorest citizens – seems a lot more right when viewed from the other side of the legislature. Or, maybe we’re supposed to wait on this promise as well.

Of course, any politician can break a promise. It takes a special kind of chutzpah for an elected official to go to court to avoid being forced to keep a promise. That’s what the McGuinty government did when it decided to appeal a court ruling ordering it to fund services to families with autistic children beyond the province’s arbitrary cut off age of six. The Liberals had been harshly critical of the Conservatives for refusing to fund the therapy programs, and assured parents and school boards that the money would flow just as soon as they were handed the keys to the Premier’s Office.

McGuinty argues that it’s not that they don’t want to keep the promise on autism funding; it’s just that they don’t like courts telling them that they have to keep their promises. Perhaps he needs to hear the message from voters.
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