McGuinty goes for three-peat, despite HST, hydro bill complaints
TORONTO - Ontario's Liberal government is heading into an election year in attack mode, waging battles on several key policy fronts as Premier Dalton McGuinty attempts a third consecutive majority.
The unofficial campaign for the Oct. 6, 2011 vote began with the fall sitting of the legislature, as the government went on the offensive immediately after releasing its 20-year, $87-billion long-term energy plan.
The opposition pounced on the admission that hydro rates would jump 46 per cent over five years and McGuinty shot back, demanding his political foes lay out their energy plans.
"The price of admission to this debate is you've got to have a plan. You got to move beyond rhetoric," McGuinty said at the time.
"You can't just continue to offer criticism and commentary from the convenience of the sidelines. At some time you've got to step up."
However, instead of sticking to their guns, the Liberals bowed to pressure and announced 10 per cent rebates on all hydro bills for the next five years.
The problem with that, says political scientist David Docherty of Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, is it undermines all those times McGuinty said higher electricity rates were the tough medicine needed to pay to renew a badly deteriorated power system.
"One of the things he has to do come the new year is get back to being Dalton McGuinty and quit being Stephane Dion, because that's how he's looking these days," said Docherty.
"He's in this position where he caved, and is he going to cave a little bit more? How can he go back to being tough in a month or two from now on this file?
"I think he's put himself in a very awkward position."
The Liberals know some of their polices are very expensive, including all-day kindergarten, building new nuclear reactors and phasing out coal-fired generation in favour of renewable, green sources of energy.
However, they are convinced Ontario voters will understand why electricity bills are going up and why the government implemented a 13 per cent harmonized sales tax last summer.
"I think people understand when it comes to a difficult issue like the HST that is really absolutely essential for us to become a more competitive economy and attract international investment that will help us create jobs," McGuinty said in a recent interview.
"If the opposition doesn't like the HST and our tax reforms, where are they going to go on these kinds of things?"
The Progressive Conservatives say they would not have introduced the HST, even though it was being pushed by their federal Conservative cousins. Instead of repealing it, the Tories are talking about some kind of unspecified tax relief for voters.
The New Democrats say they were the only party to oppose the HST both provincially and federally.
"The HST is an unfair tax shift which moves the burden of taxation off the corporate sector onto the backs of consumers," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"We can look to the upcoming campaign for some other ideas and thoughts that we have on how to provide some relief for folks, because I still hear every day the people still can't make ends meet."
Henry Jacek, a political scientist at Hamilton's McMaster University, predicts the Liberals will advertise heavily around the theme of McGuinty as the education premier. The government will be cast as one that's using the switch to renewable sources of electricity to make Ontario a manufacturing base for green energy products, he added.
"The type of education he's emphasizing is going to lead to young people having jobs because they're going to have the skills and the good education that makes Ontario attractive to invest here," said Jacek.
"It's a long-term strategy."
The opposition parties are betting the Liberals are vulnerable after two terms in office, especially on the electricity and HST fronts.
Recent polling shows the Progressive Conservatives out in front of the Liberals by a healthy margin, even though few voters know who Opposition Leader Tim Hudak is or what policies he supports.
The Liberals are portraying Hudak as the next coming of Mike Harris, the former Tory premier who remains a polarizing figure after his government slashed spending, closed hospitals and made huge cuts to welfare benefits.
"The last guys fired water inspectors, they fired meat inspectors," said McGuinty. "We've hired those people back. We've invested billions in infrastructure."
It was Harris who first promoted Hudak to cabinet in the late 1990s. The Liberals often refer to him as Hudak's mentor and hero, handing out buttons portraying Hudak as Mini-Me to Harris's Dr. Evil.
Ignoring the shots, Hudak said Ontario can't afford the Liberal government's "expensive, energy experiments," such as paying 80 cents a kilowatt hour for solar power when consumers pay five-to-10 cents a kwh.
He calls hydro smart meters "tax machines" and says consumers should not be forced to use them.
"Unlike Premier McGuinty, I don't think every senior can get up at 11 o'clock at night to do her laundry, not every family can have the kids showered and ready for school by 7 a.m.," said Hudak.
"The cost of energy is one of the biggest expenses for homeowners, for businesses and our priority remains putting consumers first."
The New Democrats also predict a rough ride for the Liberals, especially over the rising electricity bills, and plan to keep pushing the government to remove the HST from utilities.
The NDP don't get credit for the good work they've done in the legislature to push the Liberals to provide some help on electricity bills, said Docherty.
"The problem for the NDP is a lot of people know who Tim Hudak is but not very many know who Andrea Horwath is," he said.
"I think that for Horwath, she's got nine months essentially to get her name out there and to start to take credit for some of the stuff that's happened on hydro."
People know it was the NDP that forced the Liberals to provide some relief from rising electricity bills, insisted Horwath.
"We didn't get what we wanted, an across-the-board (removal) of the HST from hydro bills, but I think people are pretty well aware that it was the NDP pushing that agenda," she said.
The Green Party of Ontario, which does not have any members in the legislature but plans to field a full slate of candidates next October, believes the Liberals are vulnerable on the energy file.
The Greens also want more attention to farming issues, including tax reforms to support local producers and processors who are being driven out of business by regulations, said leader Mike Schreiner.
"Farmers are facing an income crisis that's unprecedented since the 1930s, and there's a lot of concern from folks about who's going to grow our food, where does it come from and how are we going to access it," said Schreiner.
"I don't hear any of the old parties talking about it."
After winning back-to-back majorities in 2003 and 2007, McGuinty and the Liberals have nowhere to grow and can only come back with fewer seats after next October's election, predicted Docherty.
"(McGuinty) really can't win any more seats unless the NDP completely collapse and he picks up a few there," he said.
"So no matter what happens he's going to lose seats in the fall, unless Tim Hudak completely implodes."
The Conservative vote will be stronger than in 2007, when many Conservatives stayed home out of frustration with then-leader John Tory's ill-fated promise to fund faith-based schools, said Docherty.
"The PC base is back," he said. "Conservatives will do better, at least in terms of voter turnout this time around."
Unlike John Tory, Hudak has most of the PC caucus united behind him, notes Docherty, except for renegade Randy Hillier, who is accused of trying to unseat at least one of his Tory colleagues to help his libertarian friends get PC nominations.