Even with Liberals out, election still a referendum on spending

Today is decision day for Ontario voters. They’ll go to the polls with the realization they can realistically choose from two starkly different plans for the province, presented by the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives. It’s that simple.

A vote for a Liberal in some ridings may help keep either party from having majority control of the legislature at Queen’s Park and a vote for one of the province’s marginal parties or a spoiled ballot might be a good for one’s conscience, but it is hard to see those having an impact on the end result.

While Premier Kathleen Wynne conceded early that her party will not win the election — or, perhaps, months too late for some of her supporters after she didn’t follow an exodus of cabinet ministers jumping ship — this election is still a referendum of the type of government her party ran, if not its tone. The  electorate seemed to tire of the Liberals’ smugness and it saw through their cynical approach that suggested major policy decisions and spending in an election year could trump the fact they’ve had 15 years to improve provincial services like education and health care, get the books in order, and help provide a more affordable standard of living to the masses.

The NDP under Andrea Horwath doesn’t have all that baggage, but it does plan on continuing to spend heavily on social programs and it makes it clear that it will continue the carbon tax and increase corporate taxation. If one believes the province is doing well, that the size of the public sector is sustainable, and that Ontario can spend its way to prosperity, then that party should ably continue the course.

For others, that economic theory doesn’t fly. Ontario hasn’t been an easy place to live in recent years. Hydro bills have skyrocketed. The application of harmonized sales tax on fuels and cap-and-trade — which does little to impact emissions in a province that is practically carbon neutral — has increased prices across a wide variety of products, including staples of life. Fees for many provincial services have risen. Despite all this and never-before-seen investment in the public sector, Ontario continues to see an infrastructure deficit, hallway medicine, and school closures. It’s debt also continues to rise, leaving a burden for future generations.

Ontario’s auditor general Bonnie Lysyk has often stated in her reports that there is room for more efficiencies and for different approaches to governance. It’s not hard to see there is wasteful bureaucracy that has ratcheted up costs in several sectors, Local Health Integration Networks and the myriad of hydro bureaucracy being just two examples. The Progressive Conservatives seem to realize this and they’re willing to go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, in two separate elections, they’ve had trouble with the messaging from their leadership — Tim Hudak being too vocal about job losses from austerity and Doug Ford far too vague about the efficiencies he hopes to find, albeit it’s hard to know the true state of the province’s finances. That, coupled with Ford’s populist persona, have made it difficult even for those who support the party to come to grips with his leadership of the province.

Had the Progressive Conservatives not handed Ford their leadership in an ill-conceived campaign earlier this year, they probably would have an easy majority and they’ll enter this election and its aftermath with that cross to bear. Still, this province is badly in need of a changed approach. The Progressive Conservatives have enough veteran caucus members in place to keep Ford in check as that process unfolds. That may not be the ideal, but it does present a viable option.

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