Lack Of Drama At Queen’s Park Belies Economic Woes

Lack of drama at Queen's Park belies economic woes

April 8, 2008

Predictably enough, the opposition wanted to wage war on the economy. The latest figures showed that Ontario had lost 25,000 full-time jobs in March and that its unemployment rate was creeping up. And so, armed with these findings, both interim Opposition Leader Robert Runciman and New Democrat Leader Howard Hampton used yesterday's Question Period in the Ontario Legislature to portray the government's response as feckless and uncaring.

Alas, the futility of their efforts was just as predictable as their line of questioning. The opposition leaders did not pin the tail on the donkey. Despite the jobless figures, Premier Dalton McGuinty was able to parry their queries with what has become a well-worn response: that Ontario is at the mercy of economic forces it can't control. It's doubtful whether he lost sleep last night over the day's events.

“We're into some choppy waters,” the Premier told Mr. Hampton. “It will take time before the dollar returns to some state of normalcy. It will take some time, if ever, before the price of oil drops. And it will take time before the U.S. economy, our greatest trading partner, removes itself from its sluggish state and becomes stronger.”

This type of situation – where the questions are not quite pointed enough to draw blood – has become commonplace as the legislature begins the fourth week of its spring session. The lack of drama reinforces the feeling that the Ontario political scene hasn't been this quiet for nearly a quarter-century.

The political wars that have raged in the province since the 43-year Progressive Conservative dynasty collapsed in 1985 have quieted, at least temporarily. The activist, controversy-plagued governments led by David Peterson, Bob Rae and Mike Harris – even Mr. McGuinty's vigorous first term – are just a memory.

The six months since last October's election returned the Liberals to office have mostly been a snore. What would we have done without federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's buzz-bombing of Queen's Park? Liberals argue that they will press on with their agenda and, indeed, much preparatory work is being done on issues such as poverty and climate change. But the months have flown by with mostly minor announcements by the government. Last Friday, for example, the Premier travelled to Hamilton to announce $6-million in funding for children's summer recreation programs.

Mr. McGuinty is enjoying a benign political climate. Leadership questions – how long will Mr. Hampton remain? Can PC Leader John Tory revive his career? – are hampering the opposition parties. In addition, the Premier has emerged from the election with precious few expectations he has to meet since the campaign was so totally focused on Mr. Tory's fatal issue of faith-based schools.

Pollster Greg Lyle said Ontarians want improved health and education programs and hope for some progress on climate change, but otherwise are giving the Liberals a break. His surveys show they don't miss the political wars that peaked during the Harris era. “People are not looking for more revolutions,” Mr. Lyle said. “They just want things to work.”

So, does this give Mr. McGuinty permission to channel Bill (“Bland Works”) Davis? Not likely. He can try to emulate the estimable former Tory premier and act only when public opinion demands it. But he is leading in a different era and the pressures he faces to do something about the environment and to keep up with unlimited demand for health care were unknown in the 1980s. Plus, in the Davis era, Ontario took for granted its status as Canada's economic powerhouse, whereas Mr. McGuinty has to deal with the province's possible slippage into have-not status.

With all this looming, it can't stay quiet for long. Can it?