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It’s not easy being green

My brother-in-law lives in a quiet, bucolic corner of Toronto, in a neighbourhood that looks out over Lake Ontario. It’s a very pleasant quarter away from the arterial roads, a middle-class area with its own schools, parks and a strip mall with a grocery store. One could mistake it for a street out of Desperate Housewives, but for all the SOS lawn signs scattered about the place.

SOS (Save Our Shoreline!), a citizen’s group, started a few years back after a local utility proposed constructing a 60-tower wind farm in the waters immediately offshore. After three years of agitating, SOS caught a break last February when the Ontario government imposed a moratorium on offshore wind projects, effecting scotching the proposed wind farm. Despite the win, the lawn signs remain; which can’t be good news for a government seeking re-election.

On Thursday, Ontario goes to the polls. Ontario Liberals, in power since 2003, have had an uphill fight going into the election. Eight years in office is a long time, and grievances among the electorate tend to pile up.

Government spending exploded under Premier Dalton McGuinty, rising from about $72 billion in 2003/04 to $124 billion in 2011/12, with taxes rising in lockstep. When the global recession hit in 2008 and revenues fell off, the Ontario Liberals kept right on spending and, as a consequence, ran the provincial debt from $110 billion to $237 billion over their time in office. There was a billion dollars wasted on e-Health, off-the-book payments to hospital CEOs and fraud at the provincial lottery corporation. All in all, Ontario’s Liberals have provided voters with ample reason not to give them a third term.

But for my brother-in-law’s neighbours in Scarborough-Guildwood, the biggest challenge for the Liberals isn’t unemployment, reckless spending or even the HST (introduced in 2010). In Scarborough-Guildwood, the election has turned into a referendum on the “Green Economy,” and it’s doing the government no good.

In 2008 Mr. McGuinty, faced with recession and a collapsing automotive sector, looked about for a new industrial sector to develop and settled on “Green Energy.” He wasn’t alone in this: Barack Obama and Gordon Campbell also fixated on “going green” as the next big thing, but Mr. McGuinty took it one step further.

Knowing that green energy projects would prove controversial (all new energy projects generate controversy), the McGuinty government passed the Green Energy Act, which centralized energy planning with the provincial government , neutering local councils, which generally handled zoning matters. Knowing that the green energy was more expensive than other power, the Act took regulatory authority away from the Ontario Energy Board, and vested the Department of Energy with responsibility to set prices for green power. And to make sure his plans weren’t frustrated by the bureaucracy, Mr. McGuinty charged his deputy, George Smitherman, with the task of implementing the Act. Known by the nickname “Furious George,” Mr. Smitherman had a reputation for brooking no interference and for getting his way with the Ontario civil service.

The McGuinty government jumped into its green future with both feet. To justify its new course to Ontarians, the Liberals claimed they would create 50,000 new “green jobs” although, as the Globe and Mail reported last week, members of the government caucus quickly learned there was “no rigour” to the figure.

One of the main challenges of a green economy is that it’s not organic; businesses just don’t emerge to meet a need (as they do in Information Technology). Instead, a green economy requires government involvement to set prices, to create a market and to decide which companies can participate and which can’t. In short, going green is a type of command economy, which grants officials considerably more authority than they would otherwise have.

In 2010, the McGuinty government announced a $7 billion agreement with the Korean conglomerate Samsung to build the technology to run the green grid. True to form, the deal was negotiated in secret (even the Liberal caucus wasn’t told about the negotiations) and Ontarians were told they couldn’t know the terms of the deal.

At the same time, Mr. Smitherman’s Energy Department bulldozed over local opposition to new power plants, wind farms and transmission corridors, siting facilities within or adjacent to residential communities.

Unsurprisingly, the “my way or the highway” approach did nothing to endear the government in the affected communities, many of which were represented by Liberal MLAs.

Only in the run-up to the this week’s election did the government begin reacting to local opposition, cancelling a billion-dollar power plant in Oakville last year, but keeping mum on the cancellation penalties; imposing the offshore moratorium; and, in the midst of an election campaign, telling voters in Mississauga they were shuttering a power plant already under construction.

On green energy, whoever forms government after next week will be inheriting a mess.

Everyone has a favourite bellwether riding, which tells them how government will go. This week ,the in-laws and yours truly will be watching Scarborough-Guildwood, which as recently as May returned Liberal MP John Mackay while voting massively against Mr. Smitherman when he ran for Mayor of Toronto last fall.

If the Liberals fail there, it will be a nail in the coffin for Ontario’s flirtation with the green economy.

Lisa Keenan of Saint John is a lawyer and the former president of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party.