Unlike Empire Ontario that set prosperity in place a hundred years ago, today’s Ontario lacks strategic energy and mineral resources that automatically fetch high prices in global markets. There never was coal or oil, what little uranium, silver and gold there was has been mined, and the forests have been slashed. There are ample natural resources such as water, soil and sun, but there’s no consensus or capacity to develop the people skills to work with them.
Secondly, manufacturing jobs went south. Unlike the Ontari-ary-ary-o that became the place to stand and place to grow from the 1950s to the 1970s, the outsourcing of high-paying manufacturing jobs to the Global South removed the safe and sure centerpiece of an industrial economy that allowed hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to live good and secure lives in scores of medium-sized cities and towns.
Third, and most debilitating of all, a high ethic about the public good and public service, which set the tone for Ontario from the 1940s through the early 1980s, virtually disappeared. McGuinty lacked individuals of stature, conviction, connections and expertise in his own staff and caucus, and in the government’s civil service. A premier can only be as good as his critics, and McGuinty had no Stephen Lewis heading an opposition party, no Pierre Berton or Doris Anderson crying shame in the mass media, no Bob White demanding workplace justice, no Tim Armstrong as a deputy minister providing world class advice on workplace practices – to name just a few of the many giants who once strode across Ontario.
As if this was not challenge enough, Premier McGuinty came onto the political scene during the 1990s, decade of the new world order. He embodies that decade’s triumphant neo-liberalism, a paradigm about public service that almost totally erased the public service paradigm that preceded it.
The entire direction of government from the 1950s to 1980 ground to a halt during the 1990s, no matter whether a NDP, Conservative or Liberal government was elected to government. Back in the Conservative heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, there was free high school, TV Ontario, the Science Centre, Ontario Place, a constellation of community colleges and community-based universities, galaxies of public parks and conservation areas, scores of social housing projects, subways in Toronto, as well as monuments to humane laws and ideals, such as an Ontario Human Rights Act. In the Conservative and Liberal 1970s and ’80s, there were bold laws for medicare, pay equity for women and workplace health and safety, brand new government institutions, such as ministries of the environment, and breakthrough styles of government-citizen participation, such as the blue box for recycling (said to be second only to medicare in its popularity among Canadians).
Where are the public initiatives of the McGuinty years to match the massive achievements of this pre-1990s generation. With the exception of the Greenbelt and the phasing out of coal-fired power plants, both significant achievements, there’s precious little to show for nine years at the helm. The poverty and hunger situations are worse than they were under Mike Harris, and employment equity for immigrants is no better.
To get a sense of how neo-liberalism is engrained in daily public life, think of the old Queen’s Park legislative offices or mid-century civil service buildings to their east — all majestic architecture surrounded by ample public space. Where are the modern government buildings that make a permanent and visible statement about the splendor of the public realm or leading role of public service and public space in daily life, just as the tall churches of Church Street once made a towering statement about the place of religiosity in public life of the mid-1800s, and just as the skyscraping highrises of Bay and King do now for banks and stock exchanges? Nowhere to be found, since government now rents space in office buildings. Why would we ever want to identify the public realm and public power in its own independent space? This is quite the underwhelming statement.
It’s unlikely the proposed new casino, symbol of the Liberal gamble on a fast-buck economy, will do much to change this architectural non-legacy.
It’s not just big ticket projects that are missing. There’s no litany of meaningful small things with shoestring budgets. Honoring the election commitment to abolish the Ontario Municipal Board — a body that epitomizes the neo-liberal commitment to no ethical or humane values above commercial viability — would have been a nice money-saving reform, as well as a major advance in municipal self-government. Putting money behind energy efficiency rather than nuclear and gas power plants would have been major money savers, especially given the price tag for location changes in gas plants. A green building code directed to the condo boom of the last decade could have saved tens of millions in energy bills and made new power plants unnecessary. Allowing community-scale composting by modernizing Ministry of Environment laws would be another light and easy touch. Or updating the aggregate act so the scenic and agricultural Greenbelt doesn’t have to be ransacked for gravel. Or supporting government agencies as they reorganize to phase in local food purchases.
It’s not money the government has been short on, but commitment to a prominent public presence for the public interest. It’s that thing that George Bush senior seemed so confused about — “that vision thing.”
Missing in Ontario since the 1990s is a commitment to deepen public policy information stored in government offices and belonging to the people. You can see it in the downsizing of ministry libraries. It’s also evident in the way government routinely contracts out policy research and development to corporate and global consulting conglomerates. “It’s been a long descent into the valley of disappointment” since the Liberals trounced the officially-anti-government Conservatives in 2003, a mid-ranking civil servant told me. “The whole thing turned to mush.”
Don Drummond, who personally benefitted from this contracting out when he was paid to lend his expertise as a bank economist to help the government fashion a new economic strategy, favored more in-house expertise. Government’s priority should be to advocate for and invest in the future, not the status quo, which always “has plenty of advocates,” he argued. Without in-house experts, the public does not own the information, nor is there an internal champion to push for change. Limiting civil service size and pay, Drummond warned, was “folly.”
As his parting gesture to politics, McGuinty prorogued the legislature, thereby undoing all this year’s work that citizens and the civil servants put into public law-making. That work belongs to the public, not one party or one narcissistic party leader.
Though I have seen McGuinty to be a gracious and decent person, this way of giving the middle finger to public institutions says most of what has to be said about the paradigm of public service he brought to the province. That neo-liberal ethos needs to be identified and debated in the contest to replace him.