The official feed of Ontario’s throne speech Thursday did not show the expression on the faces of former premier Kathleen Wynne or the six remaining Liberals in her much-reduced caucus, and it’s probably a good thing, if only from a humane point of view.
The speech made clear that the bad blood collected over 15 years of Liberal rule has been anything but diluted by the Progressive Conservatives’ victory in June. Much as Wynne’s Liberals never tired of blaming any obstacle on Mike Harris — who last ruled the province in 2002 — and Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals still delight in recalling the horrors of Stephen Harper, Premier Doug Ford’s people appear to have absorbed the idea that vilifying your predecessors can come in handy when excuses are needed down the road.
In a speech read by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and with a heavy emphasis on the economic challenges ahead, the Tories made clear that any complaints should be laid at the door of the departed Liberals. Key among immediate tasks will be “restoring faith” in government institutions left shaken by Liberal “accounting tricks and slight-of-hand.”
Finances “have been left in a precarious position, and too many people are feeling excluded from a system that too often seems tilted in the direction of outsiders and the elite.” The new government will replace “failed ideological experiments in the classroom” in a return to “tried and true methods that work,” and revamp the sex education curriculum with a new “age-appropriate” replacement “based on real consultation with parents.”
Noting that “no dollar is better spent than the dollar that is left in the pockets of the taxpayer,” the speech pledged to “rebuild trust … based on a shared and simple principle: You should not be forced to pay more and work harder to make life easier for your government. Instead your government should be working harder, smarter and more efficiently to make life better for you.”
The speech caps two weeks in which Ford and his cabinet appeared determined to check off as many campaign pledges as possible before the legislature reconvened, erasing as much of the Liberal legacy as could be managed in what are supposed to be somnolent summer days.
Just hours before Dowdeswell began her address, the latest of the near-daily announcements revealed yet another Liberal leftover would be biting the dust.
In this case it was a rebate program offering sizeable subsidies to buyers of electric vehicles. Introduced in an effort to wean motorists off traditional gas-guzzlers, it paid up to $14,000 towards the purchase of a variety of “cleaner” alternatives (including, for a time, millionaire buyers of $1.1 million Porsches hand-assembled in Germany). Activists, environmentalists, the New Democratic opposition and bitter “progressives” in pricey downtown Toronto neighbourhoods were sure to be upset. But so rapid have the changes been that each new round of denunciation seems reduced by the echoes of the last.
Even as Dowdeswell dutifully soldiered on, a sombre-looking Ford, seated nearby, could tot up a lengthy list of accomplishments. Barely 24 hours earlier he had announced the ousting of Hydro One chief executive Mayo Schmidt — or the “$6 million dollar man,” as Ford dubbed him — and his entire board from Hydro One, the electricity-delivery utility.
It was a key platform plank, and one much derided by critics. There were doubts the premier even had the power to carry it out, and warnings that Schmidt would collect a king’s ransom in severance. But there stood Ford outside his office Wednesday, proclaiming: “I’m happy to say today, the CEO and the board of Hydro One, they’re gone, they’re done.”
Previous to Schmidt’s departure other Liberal dominoes had fallen in steady succession. Salaries for provincial executives and managers had been frozen, a hiring freeze put in place, restrictions placed on discretionary spending. Several Liberal appointees had been dismissed, including the province’s first-ever chief scientist, hired just a few months ago; the chief investment officer; and a former banker who acted as business adviser to Wynne. The cap-and-trade program had been ditched as promised, a $100-million school repair fund axed, an ill-conceived pharmacare revamp shelved, and Ottawa informed that Ontario will no longer assist in handling a flood of asylum-seekers redirected to the province after Quebec declared itself no longer able to deal with them all. Legislation that would have substantially strengthened independent oversight of police has been delayed, pending a review.
All in less than two weeks. Unlike the polite tones of Thursday’s speech, the cries of displeasure have been sharp. How could the Tories do such things? Homeowners would be forced to pay for their own windows, teachers would no longer take precedence over parents in educating their children about sex, people would have to pay full price for electric cars just like everyone else.
But it’s the subtext of the outpouring of announcements that’s important, just as it was in Thursday’s speech. Ford’s PCs were elected to introduce change, and the biggest of those is a sharp shift away from a Liberal culture that never found an expense it couldn’t justify, an activist agenda it couldn’t endorse, a government intrusion it didn’t deem necessary. Saddled with $300 billion-plus in debt, a burgeoning economic threat from the U.S. and a sharp divide between rural and urban Ontario, its first priority had to be a clear declaration that the defeated Liberals would take the status quo with them.
“A government for the people must also be a government of respect,” intoned Dowdeswell, identifying another area the PCs believe the Liberals fell short. “On so many issues, the people who know best live and work well outside government’s walls.”
Fifteen years builds a lot of acrimony. In the new legislature, good will may be in short supply.