Premier’s outrage rings hollow

CAROL GOAR
TORONTO STAR

Sanctimoniousness is not an attractive quality in a politician. Coupled with a less-than-sterling record, it has the potential to become a serious electoral liability.

Dalton McGuinty might want to think about that as he lectures other politicians about fairness and equity. He might want to look in the mirror before he moralizes about the importance of keeping commitments.

The Ontario premier may think he is projecting righteous anger. To many voters it comes across as unproductive whining.

Last week, with Ontario's economy sliding into a pre-election downturn, McGuinty launched his latest broadside at Ottawa. He lambasted Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the "complete absence of a
federal innovation agenda." Ontario was suffering, he said, because Ottawa was not investing in new products and services, not helping universities commercialize their discoveries, not integrating highly skilled immigrants
into the workforce and not building a resilient knowledge-based economy.

"You can't just get into the damned car and hit the gas all the time without at some point in time getting out of the car, lifting up the hood, taking a look at the engine and finding out what it needs in order to keep contributing to the strength of the economy," McGuinty said.

His plea for a modern industrial strategy might have been more persuasive if he hadn't poured $580 million of taxpayers' money into the automotive sector. (The biggest handouts went to General Motors, Ford and Daimler- Chrysler.)

One of the reasons Ontario is in economic difficulty right now is its overdependence on auto manufacturing. Vehicles and parts account for 44 per cent of the province's export earnings.

McGuinty knew how reliant Ontario was on the industry when he took office. He knew the North American auto companies had staked their profits — and their workers' jobs — on gas guzzling SUVs that were economically and
environmentally unsustainable. Yet rather than launch an aggressive diversification drive, he used public funds to keep Ontario in the car-making business.

McGuinty's second main complaint, first levelled at Paul Martin's Liberals and now at Harper's Conservatives, is that Ottawa is depriving Ontario of billions of dollars that it is rightfully owed.

The premier originally set the "fiscal gap" at $23 billion. Lately, he's been a little vague about the number. But scarcely a week goes by when he doesn't find some federal-provincial agreement that is not being respected or some revenue-sharing program that works to Ontario's disadvantage.

His top grievance at the moment is an alleged $1.1 billion shortfall in the Canada-Ontario Agreement, a deal he signed with the former Liberal government in 2005 to provide federal funding for post-secondary education,
housing, cities, climate change and immigration settlement.

Shortly before last winter's election, Harper sent McGuinty a letter affirming the Conservatives would fully fund the $6.8 billion agreement.

Now, according to the premier, he has gone back on his word. Ottawa has unilaterally cut Ontario's entitlement.

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty insists the province is getting the same amount through a new national program. "Every nickel has been committed."

Most taxpayers have no way of sorting out this financial tangle. But they're pretty good at keeping track of broken promises. And McGuinty has chalked up quite a few:

• He pledged to end the clawback of the national child benefit. Three years later, the province is still skimming $120 off the $160 monthly cheques sent
by Ottawa to Ontario's lowest-income children.
• He said a Liberal government would build 20,000 units of affordable housing. So far, it has completed 1,625 units. It says another 6,000 are in the works.
• He told Ontario's professional licensing bodies they had one year to remove the barriers preventing qualified newcomers from working in their field. Otherwise he'd act. Foreign-trained professionals are still driving cabs and emptying bedpans.
• As his opponents never tire of reminding him, he guaranteed that if he became premier, he would not raise taxes or impose new ones. Six months later, he brought in a health-care premium that costs the average Ontario
family $600 a year.

There were extenuating circumstances. But the fact remains that McGuinty did exactly what he is accusing Harper of doing.

The premier does have several legitimate beefs. Ottawa is collecting more revenue than it needs to fulfill its responsibilities while the provinces (except Alberta) skimp on essential services. The industrial heartland is hurting.
Ontario can no longer afford to be the cash cow of Confederation.

But he'll win more allies with statesmanship than with sermonizing.