What will feuding politicians finally do with “the Don of a new era in Ontario”?

Feb 16th, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

Don Drummond gives a technical briefing on his report Wednesday at Queen's Park in Toronto. Steve Russell/Record news services.

[UPDATED FEBRUARY 18]. If you just feel confused by both the report of Don Drummond’s “Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services … PUBLIC SERVICES FOR ONTARIANS: A PATH TO SUSTAINABILITY AND EXCELLENCE,” and the immediate reaction from assorted business, labour, media, and political powers that be, join the club.

Robert Benzie, Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star, struck two suitably whimsical notes in his initial reporting. In “Drummond Report: New roadmap for Ontario includes higher hydro bills, larger school classes” Mr. Benzie observed how Don Drummond’s two-volume “668-page report” is “so weighty that a table collapsed when Ontario Provincial Police officers unloaded embargoed copies in the media lock-up.” Benzie then began his “Drummond Report: Deficit-busting recommendations” (a rather useful summary of 13 key proposals) with a droll first-sentence pun: “It is the Don of a new era in Ontario.”

Robert Benzie, Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star.

(For the official list of all 362 proposals for enhancing sustainability and excellence see “Appendix 1: Commission Recommendations.”)

A dozen different newspaper headlines suggest something of the diversity in the immediate  reaction: “Drummond delivers ‘gloomy’ wake-up call to Ontario” ; “Ontario in for long-term pain, Drummond says” ; “Economic growth will not save Ontario: Drummond report” ; “Drummond report shows sun has set on Ontario empire … but, will it notice?” ; “Drummond report signals start of Dalton McGuinty’s lean years” ; “Solid, technocratic advice in Don Drummond’s report” ; “ Drummond report offers a world of possibilities to Ontario’s government” ; “Drummond Report merely the end of the beginning” ; “Ontario’s recipe for savage spending cuts is vague” ; “Dithering Dalton must act on economy” ; “Liberal smoke screen” ; and “Drummond speaks a language Liberals don’t understand.”

Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak seems to think Drummond report does not go far enough.

Probably the hardest thing to judge is just how serious the Ontario financial situation that has prompted  the Drummond report actually is. And the hyperbolic politics-as-usual reactions from political and other leaders in Canada’s most populous province are not much help.

The Ottawa Sun, eg, reports that “Ontario’s economy has become the little engine that couldn’t and only seven years of spending cuts deeper than what Mike Harris brought in can keep the wheels turning … ‘The day of reckoning has come because these guys could not say no for eight straight years,’ [Conservative opposition leader Tim] Hudak said. … ‘We have to get moving on these recommeations or if the Liberals reject some things, they have an obligation to put something else on the table.’”

Veteran labour economist Jim Stanford, now with Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

On the other side of the aisle, Kim Jarvi, senior economist with the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario has urged that: “You wouldn’t know it by listening to the critics, but Ontario’s debt position significantly improved under the current government prior to the recession … that trend was reversed” as “the necessary consequence of complying with the demand to fight the recession.”

Jim Stanford, the veteran labour economist now advising  the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (on this occasion: his day job is still with the Auto Workers), has seconded this motion: “We cannot forget that the recession caused the deficit, not ‘overspending’ or an ‘out-of-control’ public sector. After all, remember that the budget was balanced (with 3 years of surpluses, in fact) before the financial crisis hit in 2008-09.”

* * * *

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath reacts to Drummond report on Wednesday, February 15.

Advice of this sort has no doubt helped shape the reaction from Ontario “New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath,” who has “said Drummond was but ‘one voice’ in the province and his singular focus on service cuts was out of step with every day Ontarians … ‘We’ve been hearing from the people of this province a real concern about jobs,’ Horwath said. ‘Real concerns about the affordability of everyday life, real worries that the health care system seems to be eroding before their eyes’.”

Meanwhile: “Not tipping his hand too much was Finance Minister Dwight Duncan — who has said full day kindergarten is safe but wouldn’t extend any similar guarantee for the energy benefit or tuition cut … Nor did he rule out the possibility of preserving some services by foregoing planned corporate tax cuts, as the NDP have urged … Duncan did put distance between his government and Drummond, noting an economist doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of making severe cuts.”

Dalton McGuinty visits a kindergarten class at Prince of Peace Elementary School in Ottawa. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has said full day kindergarten is safe. Photograph by Ottawa Citizen.

So … don’t jump to any rash conclusions about anything just yet. It is true enough that the McGuinty Liberal “major minority” government will need the support of either the New Democrats or the Conservatives to pass any budget that draws on “the Don of a new era in Ontario” in any degree at all. Mr. Drummond’s “Chapter 1: The Need for Strong Fiscal Action” does make a case of some consequence. And no report with the title “PUBLIC SERVICES FOR ONTARIANS: A PATH TO SUSTAINABILITY AND EXCELLENCE” is really going to revisit the mind of Mike the Knife Harris in the last half of the 1990s.

(Chapter 1 even begins with: “Ontarians want excellent public services from their government. The Commission understands and supports this desire. We see no reason why Ontario cannot have the best public services in the world — with the proviso that they must come at a cost Ontarians can afford.”)

Don Drummond on a Toronto streetcar: not exactly a man of the Mayor Ford nation. Photograph by Brett Gundlock, National Post.

Listening to the confusing array of immediate reactions from so many different quarters it is easy enough to be sceptical about what will  finally happen. But as of 5:30 PM today online readers of Luisa D’Amato’s “Drummond speaks a language Liberals don’t understand,” at The Record.com (a legatee of the old Kitchener-Waterloo Record), were answering 85% No to the question “Do you think the governing Liberals will make the changes Drummond recommends?” My own current guess is that this will prove a little too sceptical.

Whatever else, there is almost certainly a considerably better chance that Dalton McGuinty (and Dwight Duncan and so forth) will come up with a more effective take-away from the Drummond report than either Tim Hudak or Andrea Horwath. And here’s hoping one of the opposition leaders (most likely Ms. Horwath?) will be big enough to see this when push does come to shove — when the new budget for the new era comes before the Legislative Assembly, sometime late next month, or thereabouts? Another Ontario election this spring is not going to serve anyone’s interest in the regional economy very well.

UPDATE FEBRUARY 18: The “Don of a new era in Ontario” has of course just began with the release of the Don report this past Wednesday. And not surprisingly already there are further reactions.

To start with, see: Drummond report: Ontarians not eager for harsh medicine, poll suggests … “Overall, 30% of those surveyed approved of the Drummond report, 32% opposed it and 38% were undecided … Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said ‘absolutely’ the challenges are greater now than they were for the previous PC administration because of the sluggish US economic recovery and high Canadian dollar … ‘It’s a very different situation and it also requires a very different approach,’ said Duncan, adding ‘we simply can’t cut welfare’ the way the Conservatives did … ‘We’ve had considerable changes and it’s going to be a very aggressive approach and we’ll be outlining that in the budget’ expected in late March, he said.”

For another report on the same poll, see: Ontarians split on Drummond report recommendations.

For further reporting and commentary over the past few days, see also: Drummond Report: An excerpt on how Ontario got into this mess ; Drummond report gets cool reception from Ontario businesses ; Walkom: The real victims of the Drummond report’s cuts ; and What’s wrong with Ontario —  and how to make it right.

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