Ontario’s premier insists she has the fix for Canada’s largest economy—more government
The morning after winning her majority, well-pressed and alert despite the previous night’s merriment, Kathleen Wynne stood before her caucus and spoke glowingly of the path ahead.
Her speech was standard post-victory fare—the honour of election, the burden of responsibility. But at its fulcrum lay a phrase of the sort seldom heard in two decades of Ontario politics: this Liberal government, the premier said, would govern from the “activist centre”—a place on the political spectrum which, though undefined, she declared to be the locus of her new mandate.
In the ensuing months, Ontarians would get a sense of what she was talking about. As promised, the province’s $11 minimum wage began rising in pace with inflation, first to $11.25, then to $11.40, giving Ontario the highest pay floor in the country. The Liberals then showed they were determined to push through their own parallel pension plan for Ontario until federal and provincial finance ministers agreed this week to expand the Canada Pension Plan.
On the social front, revisions to the school curriculum carried the province deep into what many consider the private sphere of parents, starting sexual education in Grade 1.
Wynne seemed undaunted by accusations of nanny-statism that for decades Ontario’s mainstream political leaders have strived to avoid. “Government exists to be a force for good,” she told Maclean’s recently, repeating a mantra she’s used frequently since the election. Just how activist the government planned to be, though, became clear in mid-May, when details from a leaked draft of the government’s climate change action plan found their way into the Globe and Mail.
A preamble signed by the premier hailed it as a “once-in-a-lifetime transformation” that will “forever change how we live, work, play and move.” The plan as written represented the closest thing Ontario has seen to command-and-control economics since the colonial era, forcing builders of new homes to abandon fossil-fuel heating; requiring anyone selling a home to first conduct an energy-efficiency audit; setting auto-industry sales targets to have an electric car in the driveway of every multi-vehicle household by 2025. The cost—nearly $8 billion over four years—would be covered by proceeds from the province’s cap-and-trade scheme on carbon emissions.
Reaction on the right was swift and extreme. “Ideological fervour, divorced from economic or practical reality,” is how Joe Oliver, the former Conservative federal finance minister, summed it up in a newspaper op-ed, adding: “This sounds like the boldest attempt to re-engineer society since Mao’s Cultural Revolution.” By mid-June, the Liberals were backtracking. A final version announced June 7 scrapped the natural-gas heating requirement for new homes as long as builders find equivalent reductions in carbon emissions. The word “transformation” was dropped from Wynne’s introduction.
Still, more than any single initiative, the plan has pressed home the changes shaking Ontario, remaking Canada’s former epicentre of rugged free enterprise into something akin to a debt-encumbered Euro-state. The recovery in high-paying manufacturing jobs that many hoped the devalued loonie would bring has failed to materialize, leaving Ontario dependent on public service jobs created largely by debt-fuelled public spending.
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