Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is heading for the hills. And he’s shutting down the legislature to make sure no one catches up.
That, in a nutshell, is the meaning of Monday evening’s surprise two-pronged announcement.
McGuinty is quitting as premier. More important, he’s proroguing the legislature indefinitely – a desperate action that suggests that there are still more scandals, as yet unrevealed, waiting to torpedo the minority Liberal government.
On Monday, opposition leaders praised the premier. They are soon going to start asking what it is that he doesn’t want elected MPPs talking about.
But the real question – for both Ontarians and the country – is what happens to the McGuinty agenda. And yes, there is – or at least was – an agenda. It may have been misguided, in whole or part. But it was coherent.
It involved fiscal restraint to soothe investors, more private-sector involvement in public business and bold efforts to build up a green energy manufacturing sector.
Regardless of what McGuinty and his ministers might say, all of that is now effectively on hold. It may be trashed by whoever replaces McGuinty as Liberal leader and premier.
Will the next premier want to balance the province’s books on the backs of teachers and other public-sector workers?
No one knows. McGuinty insists he wants to suspend, or prorogue, the assembly for several months in order to concentrate on public-sector wage restraint. But if his successor has a different idea for rebooting the Ontario economy, any such efforts will be in vain.
Ditto the Liberal emphasis on so-called public-private partnerships.
Under McGuinty, the Liberal government quietly privatized big chunks of Ontario’s electricity production. It created strange, quasi-government organizations to handle public business – with the big-spending air ambulance service known as Ornge being the most notorious example.
It embraced the notion of going into business with private firms to build or refurbish hospitals and toyed with the idea of having private companies build – and possibly even run – portions of Toronto’s transit system.
It even encouraged private business to set the rules and, in effect, regulate itself. Much of this has gone unnoticed. Only when manufacturers overreached themselves by hitting consumers with stiff green taxes on common purchases like bleach did the public react in anger.
But the centrepiece of the McGuinty agenda was his controversial green energy policy.
The idea here had three parts. First, electricity consumers would subsidize new forms of power generation, such as wind power, through their hydro bills. Coal would be phased out as a source of electricity generation and replaced by natural gas.
Second, these green power generators (all private, incidentally) would buy their equipment from Ontario manufacturers.
Third, to encourage foreign multinationals like South Korea’s Samsung to locate their windmill manufacturing plants in Ontario, the provincial government would offer generous subsidies.
For a premier who prided himself on caution, the green energy policy was a remarkably daring attempt to use the power of government to rebuild Ontario’s tattered manufacturing sector.
But like the rest of the McGuinty agenda it soon ran into trouble – from rural residents worried that windmills were making them sick, from suburbanites who didn’t want new gas turbines built near their homes, from hydro users angered by their rising energy bills.
In the end, through a crazy-cat combination of Liberal deviousness and government incompetence, all of these contradictions came to a head.
On Monday night, McGuinty said he realized that it was time for his party to try someone new. What he meant was that, politically, he had no choice.
So he announced his resignation. In doing so, he took his government’s entire agenda with him.
Thomas Walkom is a news services columnist.
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