Liberal backtracking

Hot on the heels of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), which became effective July 1 in Ontario increasing the tax on a number of items to 13 per cent, a so-called “eco” fee, which many of us had never heard about and which covers the cost of processing hazardous household waste, was quietly implemented.

Then, hot on the heels of that fee, or tax, if you like, the Liberal government bowed to public pressure after complaints, both about the fee and its application. So, for the next three months the eco-fee will be suspended while the government reassesses how to properly implement it.

Backtracking has become a signature McGuinty tool as the Liberals seek to accommodate critics and keep voters on side. With a long view to the next election in October 2011, the question becomes whether voters will let the Liberals get away with all that backtracking and keep them in the driver’s seat for a third term.

A June Ipsos-Reid Poll of 800 Ontarians found Liberal popularity had fallen two points from October 2009 to 37 per cent. But still behind the Liberals, the Tim Hudak-led Conservatives fell four points to 32 per cent. The beneficiaries of the fall off are the Ontario New Democrats, up four points to 20 per cent, and the Greens up two points to 11 per cent. Toronto remains a stronghold for the Liberals.

Despite their upward drift, it is hard to imagine the NDP having a credible chance at becoming the next provincial government. Or for that matter the Conservatives. There are enough people with bitter memories of the drift to the left and to the right of the spectrum that came with voting for the Ontario NDP under Bob Rae and the Conservatives under Mike Harris. Also, among the current Conservative caucus, there are still enough holdovers from the Harris era “common sense revolution” to keep voters holding at the centre.

It is interesting to note that, in a sense, the Ontario electorate’s predicament with the McGuinty Liberals is somewhat similar to the national scene. Stephen Harper may not be a popular prime minister but, to many, federally, the alternatives are not appealing enough. That is why, despite all his broken promises and reversals, McGuinty will in all likelihood prevail in taking the Liberals to a third consecutive term.

Part of his success rests on the fact that McGuinty has managed to make enough small ‘c’ conservatives and small ‘l’ liberals feel comfortable with his style of bland, yet competent, management. So much so that when he backtracks, as he did back in April this year on a Ministry of Education updated sex education curriculum for Ontario schools, he does not appear to pay a heavy political price. There is hardly any backlash. Nor has there been significant enough of a fallout when the program to create electronic health records for Ontario turned into a billion-dollar debacle.

For our part, we in the Black community will remember McGuinty’s lack of support for the Toronto District School Board’s Africentric Alternative School initiative, which he claimed he was “not comfortable” with and which, as it turns out, seems to be successful in helping Black children.

The Liberals can, however, claim a string of legislative advances including raising the minimum wage, creating a green belt around Toronto that will preserve forests and farm lands, banning smoking in public places and raising the issue of equalization payments to Ottawa that put Ontario at a disadvantage, paying more into the collective pot than we receive.

Yet, McGuinty has broken a number of promises, the phasing out of coal-fired electricity generating plants being one. This is no small matter, considering the coal-fired Nanticoke station is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in Canada. And, with more than one in 10 living in poverty here, initiatives to support the poor have been relatively weak.

It would be well for the Ontario Liberals to remember therefore that being too comfortable and assured of their position is what cost the federal Liberals the government.

Heading toward Oct. 2011, McGuinty will do well to bring his A-game.

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