November 17th, 2018

National Affairs: Policy details not necessary for Ford victory

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on June 4, 2018.

As a guide to the actions of a Doug Ford government, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ newest platform remains singularly unsatisfactory.

It lists the cost of some Ford election pledges but is silent on others. It gives little idea of what Ford might cut to achieve his promised $5.6 billion in annual government savings. In fact, it doesn’t mention that promise at all.

It gives no information about Ford’s interesting pledge to bring back $1 per bottle of beer to Ontario.

It calculates the cost of its proposed corporate, individual and energy tax cuts at about $7.3 billion per year, once fully implemented. But it gives no idea as to whether the resulting revenue loss will be offset by borrowing or spending cuts.

It commits an additional $5 billion to the Toronto subway system. But it is silent on the cost of its main transit promise — which is to upload responsibility for Toronto’s subway system onto the provincial government.

It does not calculate the size of the fiscal deficit it proposes to run. Nor does it specify when a Ford government might eliminate this deficit, saying only that the PCs will “return to a balanced budget on a responsible time frame.”

In short, for those seeking a detailed blueprint of what a Doug Ford government might do, it is not very helpful.

But it’s not clear that this matters a whit. The notion that political parties must produce fully costed platforms at election time dates back to 1993 and the so-called Red Book of Jean Chrétien’s federal Liberals.

The idea was that voters would be able to see exactly what trade-offs were involved when parties made election promises.

While few voters were expected to read these detailed platforms, it was hoped that their very existence would make the parties seem more credible.

From the Red Book onward, those writing these platforms had to walk a difficult line. They had to provide enough detail to let the platforms have their totemic effect. But at the same time they had to be vague enough to give the politicians manoeuvring room.

The original Red Book was a classic in this regard. It said a Liberal government would eliminate Ottawa’s fiscal deficit over time. But it didn’t say the government would do so by gutting welfare, medicare and what was then known as unemployment insurance — which is what the Liberals did. The Red Book critique of the immensely unpopular GST was so subtle that even Liberal candidates in that 1993 election were uncertain of whether the party was for or against the new tax.

One Liberal, Sheila Copps, promised to quit her Hamilton seat if the Chrétien government didn’t kill the GST. She eventually had to keep that promise (and was handily re-elected in a byelection).

Mike Harris’s manifesto for the 1995 Ontario election, the Common Sense Revolution, was a Tory version of the Red Book — designed to show that he was not an unthinking troglodyte but rather a man with a plan.

As platforms go, the Common Sense Revolution was a brilliant piece of work. But it, too, was carefully vague, not mentioning for instance that the Tories might curtail spending by scaling back hospitals — which is what they did.

Sometimes, party platforms contain hidden traps, as did Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s manifesto for the 2014 Ontario election. In that platform she made a vague promise to look at maximizing the value of government assets — a pledge she later used as justification for privatizing Hydro One.

Sometimes, governments simply renege on their election platforms, as Bob Rae’s New Democrats did in 1991 when they abandoned plans for public auto insurance.

Ultimately, governments — once elected — will do what they think is best, regardless of platform promises.

So does Ford’s failure to produce a full-scale platform matter? My guess is: Not much. The very fact that he’s done anything should be enough to satisfy wavering Tory voters.

Should these be enough to propel him into office, a Ford government will not be defined by a platform, no matter how detailed. It will be defined by Doug Ford.

Thomas Walkom writes on national affairs for Torstar Syndication Services

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