Options for Ontario’s free-market Tories

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
September 17, 2003

Ontario’s Tories are disillusioned. The party of Mike Harris has become, under Harris’s successor, Ernie Eves, a party of Big Government. Many plan to sit out Ontario’s election Oct. 2.

Free-market Tories are right to be revulsed by Eves. He has turned on the spending taps and turned his back on tax cuts. He has trashed an open market in electricity and, if returned to power, promises to trash the auto insurance industry.

The Tories now realize their error 18-months ago in choosing Eves as leader over his principled free-market runner up, Jim Flaherty. Market-oriented Tories can’t replay their 2002 leadership contest but they do have somewhere to turn in the current election. They can give themselves a leader that can do them proud next time by voting out the present Tory government. A vote for the Liberal McGuinty is a vote for the Tory Flaherty.
(Tory) Flaherty

Until the mid-1980s, the Ontario Liberals under leaders such as farmer Bob Nixon were an irrelevant party, out of power for more than four decades and largely confined to a rump rural base. Then the Liberals turned urban, first with Hamilton psychiatrist Stuart Smith and then with London lawyer David Peterson. Political power soon followed, particularly after the Tories replaced retiring premier Bill Davis, a suburbanite with great appeal to urban voters, with his opposite, ruralite Frank Miller.

Today the Tories act as if they’re vying for Bob Nixon’s old rural rump. They sloganeer against immigrants and for capital punishment, ensuring the distaste of urban voters, and promise protection for uncompetitive resource industries to woo a rural base. Under the Tory’s worst plausible scenario, they will retain a rural rump; in their best plausible scenario, they will eke out a victory through some combination of rural and suburban ridings.

Free market Tories should fear Eves’s best scenario. An Eves victory will prove to party hacks that political polls trump political principles, and that the party should stand for expediency, not free markets. But free-market Tories should also welcome a decisive Eves defeat. Soon after being ousted as premier he will be ousted as party leader, with Flaherty the likely successor.

Flaherty, for those who don’t recall, emerged as Ontario’s most prominent privatizer, free marketer and tax cutter two years ago. That made him anathema in some NDP strongholds and resource ridings but respected in Ontario’s populous Golden Horseshoe, which depends on free trade and commerce for its prosperity. Flaherty’s approach to social issues – he combined law and order with middle-of-the-road same-sex and abortion policies – also found favour with Ontario’s urban majority. In hindsight, he was the dream Tory leader, yet spurned by a feckless party that feared he wouldn’t satisfy the electorate’s desire for change. As polls now show, the party got it backwards, and it is Eves who makes the electorate yearn for change.

Should the Liberals under McGuinty come to power, he will soon find his platform impossible to implement successfully. In energy, he has pinned his hopes on nuclear power and on ethanol, fuels too costly to produce in large quantities. Look for shortages and higher prices. In housing, he will tighten rent controls, encouraging developers to do business elsewhere. Look for shortages and disrepair. And in water, where scores of publicly run water and wastewater systems in Ontario routinely fail to comply with safety standards, he expects local municipalities that operate without private sector discipline, expertise or liability to somehow develop the wherewithal to protect the environment and the public from future Walkerton-type scandals. Look for no shortage of scandals but rising costs, with money inefficiently spent on ineffectual solutions.
(Dalton) McGuinty

In all cases, the environment and the economy are likely to suffer, making McGuinty vulnerable to opposition pressure. If the opposition comes from the Flaherty Tories, the Ontario Liberals will lurch toward free market solutions, much as the federal Reform Party forced the Liberals to move rightward in the 1990s. And that will give Ontario’s free-market Tories policies they want under McGuinty that they could never have had under Eves.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. http://www.Urban-Renaissance.com, E-mail: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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