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The Astonishing Lack of Attention to Ontario Government and Politics

Many people have been asking me about my thoughts on the recent release of the Ford government’s line-by-line audit and the unbelievably high deficit and debt numbers released by the Tories.  It has been interesting to see the reaction to how this has all unfolded.  The reaction switches from disbelief, to telling us something we already knew, to doing what governments always do, which is to overstate how bad the last guys were at managing the province’s finances.

But here’s the truth.  A lot of the information flowing about the true state of public finances in Ontario has long been public knowledge.  The problem is that the people haven’t paid attention.  Some in the media have perpetuated the problem for a long time too.  All of what has come out in recent days has been out there for years.  All of it.  Yet, the previous government never once acknowledged it, and even tried to hide it.  And the media may have devoted a passing line in a story to it, but never gave it the rigorous reporting any scandal is usually afforded.

The feud between the previous government and the auditor-general has been years old.  It started with the government taking away powers from the A-G for screening government advertising, which they did by tucking it inside omnibus legislation without the adequate scrutiny such a change deserved.  The media reported it, sure, but so they also reported that this change was necessary because the A-G held up the release of government ads because she was careless and sloppy.  It then started getting worse from a transparency and accountability perspective.  The government and the A-G started exchanging bitter words on accounting treatments of various budgetary lines, and thus the A-G did not issue any clean audit reports for the past 3 years. This is pretty crazy stuff. Certainly, the government that reviews audits for any organization it levies a tax on could NEVER get away with it.  But, how many Ontarians know this to be true? Worse still, how many Ontarians cared to factor this particular point into their voting decisions rather than an overall negative sentiment about the government that had been in power for 15 years?

So when media reports and former Liberal cabinet ministers say something to the effect of the government isn’t telling us what we don’t already know, I sit back in sincere bewilderment.  If the government knew, but did nothing, it was negligent. If the media knew but did nothing to hold the government to account over it, then they are at fault too.

I want to expand on this point about the media here too.  For too long, Tories who espoused fiscal discipline were always cornered by the media for detailing the fiscal mess, and then continually being berated about what they were going to cut to balance the books.  If there was an honest treatment of the fiscal mess in Ontario, that question should have been asked by everyone to everyone.  But, no, that’s not what happened.  That’s not the story we got at all.  The story we got was that the Tories failed to fully cost their platform.  Never was the question asked on what numbers should those numbers be based.  Nobody trusted the government’s numbers anyway.  Not even the non-partisan A-G appointed on the recommendation of an all-party committee at Queen’s Park.  Put a different, the costed platform of the other parties were full of garbage too.

Now, the narrative is Doug Ford the bully, settling political battles through his supposedly mean-spirited and vindictive ways. Now with Toronto elections issues being settled, Ford is going to stick it to the Liberals with a vengeance.

If you ask me why this select committee is necessary, it isn’t to settle a political score.  It may be an official government line to highlight the incompetence of  the previous government.  But the bigger reason Ford has gone down the select committee path is because his government sets the communications agenda, and he’s hell bent to make sure every Ontarian knows who created the mess. The question will be how much coverage will this official proceeding manage to garner.  I’m sure when Bonnie Lysyk shows up, as I would expect, there will be some attention thrown her way as she details the fiscal mess in ways only she can.  It would be interesting to see who the Liberals and the NDP call up as witnesses.

Climbing out of the fiscal blackhole won’t be easy. Tough choices will need to be made.  The government is providing us with some pretty good hints as to what to expect in order to fix this mess.  One of my jobs at Earnscliffe is to help clients deal with the new reality.  So if this is you, please send me an email.

Rob Leone is Principal for Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto.  The words expressed here are his personal views and opinions.

Sex-Ed Reform Presents a Perfect Chance to Show Tories are Ready to Govern

Not long ago, on this blog, I called for the Ontario PCs to change the nature of the conversation the party is having with Ontarians.  Some months later, the Tories super charged the rhetoric, won an election, and gave Ontarians its ‘government for the people.’  A populist revolt worked wonders during the election, and it did certainly fuel the desire for change.  In that blog, I argued for a kind of change in approach that would show a more intelligent side of our party.  And now that the party has formed an impressive majority government, its focus should be on sustaining and even growing its support. This is precisely why I see this sex-ed curriculum reform issue as a decisive one for what direction the PC government is going to take.

Let’s start by recognizing certain truths.  Kids in grade 5 or 6 can figure out how to film, edit, and post videos online with a few clicks and little effort.  We are becoming less acquainted with who are children are seeing and talking with.  Our kids are not only engaging in sexual activity at a younger age, but they don’t have the maturity to understand the possible consequences of the decisions they are making.  In addition, kids have access to all sorts of information, good and bad, the moment they have a smart phone or tablet.  Any conversations the have, they are keeping far away from parents.  Oh, and those chats on video games are priceless specimens of immature swearing and cussing and interacting with Lord knows who.   Most parents, I suspect, would be shocked to learn about what their kids are doing and at what age.  Many kids will be exposed to sexual things before they learn about it in their health class.  The government cannot ignore these truths, and we need to admit that parents don’t know half of what their kids are doing.

The other truth that cannot be ignored is that it will take a long time for the Ontario PCs to build trust among the voting public regarding education policy.  Right or wrong, the party has been tarnished by what is perceived to be neglect of an important file.   Nobody wants to trust a group of people to reform an education system that is in desperate need of reform when they think the party is out of touch with reality.  The sad thing is that there are legions of parents out there who need a party to speak to them on education, and these parents are counting on the PCs to be that party.  We cannot let them down.  These parents are concerned about things like protecting extracurricular activities, supervision on the school yard, and better parent-teacher communication, in addition to what and how kids are learning in the classroom.  Parents are concerned about Ontario students falling behind other countries in math, and they are even more concerned that their child is not going to be prepared for higher education once he or she gets to that age.  Parents are also tired of the fact that the previous government seemed to only pay attention to special interests in education to the detriment of their child’s academic progress.  The Tories can be the party that corrects the course on this one too. However, you cannot do so by replacing one special interest with another.  The Tories need to unapologetically be about student success rather than any other special interest, and they should choose issues that reinforce that message.  Sex ed reform can be “an” example, perhaps, that could have been used among a whole bunch of better ones, but it should never be “the” example of what reforms need to happen in education and how the Tories will tackle such reforms. The stars do not align for a passionate and forceful ‘for the students’ message on sex-ed.

Now that sex-ed is front and centre on the agenda, it’s hard to undo and retract.  However, the government still has hope to strike a better tone.  First, don’t get into the weeds on the content.  If somebody asks ‘will the new curriculum talk about cyber sexting’, the answer must always be ‘we will modernize health and physical education to meet 21st century realities.’  Instead of talking about content, speak in emotive terms.  Talk about the safety of kids.  Speak to a modernization that promotes inclusion and student success for every child.  Talk about how parents and teachers are concerned about cramming too many things into a school year, and one might well wonder what might not be taught in order for the health and physical education curriculum to be taught, given the limits of the instructional day in our schools and such.  We have a unique environment in Ontario where we add curriculum but reduce instructional time.  Start explaining this to people!  Use it to pivot to subjects where you actually want reform, such as math, that are better examples of a ‘for the students’ message.

There is a way to talk about these issues without getting into a debate about the appropriate time, if ever, to talk about sex in schools. Nobody will ever agree on the timing of when kids should learn about sex.  There has never been agreement, and that’s why the current/old curriculum hasn’t been changed in 20 years.  The risk of discussing the disagreement for any prolonged period of time is not getting the better ‘for the students’ message out, and that won’t help the party or government.

An era of ‘David Copperfield’ Budgeting

Ah, budgets don’t balance themselves, and it’s also true that budgets don’t deficit themselves either.  Both require choices.  And voters have to ask that, in a period of economic growth, why the heck are we ballooning our debts and deficits by so much?  If we can’t make the tough choices when times are reasonably good, we sure as heck won’t be able to make them when times are tough.  But that’s somebody else’s problem, right?

Here’s the truth: budgeting in Canada is an illusion to begin with.  Case in point: Ontario’s deficit is expected to be $6.7 billion this year, but our debt is rising by about $12 billion.  Why is that? It’s because governments long ago separated their capital spending from their operating spending, and really, showing debts and deficits in this way is a shell game.  If you want a better looking deficit, place more expenses on the capital budget ledger.  When Canadians hear about hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending over the next decade, they should know that this is hundreds of billions of dollars being added to the debt.

Then, there’s the BS of debt-to-GDP ratios as a measure of how strong a province’s fiscal management is.  In Ontario, the debt-to-GDP ratio as reported by the government is hovering around 37%.  That is the size of the debt relative to the size of our economy.  By most measures, a debt-to-GDP ratio under 40% isn’t horrible.  However, what’s so ridiculous about measuring fiscal management by this measure is that Ontario is a sub-national government.  That means that the Ontario economy not only needs to prop up it’s sub-national debt obligations, but also its portion of national debt obligations.  Combining the sub-national and Ontario’s portion of the national debt, the Ontario economy’s debt-t0-GDP ratio is getting closer to 70%.  This gets you in the territory of shaky European countries that are struggling.

As I write this, I’m reminded of an e-mail chain that was going through Ontario’s Ministry of Finance.  These bureaucrats were mocking the government’s fiscal prudence, but were ultimately tasked with providing advice on how to present the budget to Ontarians.  The emails show that the projections were a fabrication.  FAKE NEWS, if you will.  There were about a dozen recommendations presented to the Finance Minister.  The very last option was to not present medium to long term fiscal projections.  The option came with the recommendation that this option “would not be acceptable in the post-Drummond era.”  What did the government choose to do? It chose to not publish medium to long term fiscal projections.  For years, we were not privy to the government’s economic projections.  FAKE NEWS to hide the truth.  By the way, the Minister of Finance had to plea with our committee not to release these sensitive e-mails exposing this debauchery. Right. Transparency at its best.  Open government loses again.

So this is the major point.  What budgeting has become is an illusion of truth.  What governments are telling us is the best spin hoping we’ll be distracted by the goodies to not bother to look at the mess.  David Copperfield would be proud.  Governments are going to tell voters that not proceeding with all its new spending will be the end of life as we know it.  However, the truth of the matter is that government budgeting is in massive need of a correction.  It’s in a bubble, and it’s distorting what’s really happening in the economy.  Governments have become self-absorbed.  It is caring more about its own internal pet projects than the public it serves, and that leads to decisions that get us to a spot we are in right now.  Unchecked spending with no sign of relenting.

The sooner we get out of this mess, the better off we will be in the long run.

With Ford at the helm, Tories poised to win biggest majority ever!

I certainly suspect a fair number of pundits to write off Doug Ford’s prospects this June, but I won’t be one of them.  As I have been saying for some time now, Doug Ford is capable of winning a general election against Kathleen Wynne, but his path to victory would look a heck of a lot different than Christine Elliott’s.  The other thing I’ve been saying for some time now is that while Christine Elliott would be the sort of non-offensive leader that could sustain multiple Tory terms, Doug Ford would likely be the sort of high risk, high reward choice to win the largest majority government in Ontario’s history.

Why does this fair-minded professor say such a crazy thing?  Here’s why: Doug Ford is the embodiment of the kind of anger Ontarians have been feeling for years.  That anger is not partisan.  It’s an anger that speaks to the fact that some have won more than ‘others’ in this province, and those others now have their candidate.  Those ‘others’ are business owners who through red tape, regulation, higher hydro rates, and more, are being driven out of the province.  Those ‘others’ include all the men and women who have lost their jobs in manufacturing and can’t find a better replacement job.  Those ‘others’ include families living in substandard housing, in a province that has struggled to provide adequate affordable housing, let alone contain housing affordability.  Those ‘others’ include every hydro rate payer who is paying for handsome returns to a select few green energy power producers. Those ‘others’ include those that have stuck with the PCs throughout their time in opposition, but also those who have also voted for other parties, or haven’t voted in years.  Ford does not speak to right vs. left.  He speaks to those that haven’t had a voice, and we’ve seen right around the world how these popular uprisings can be electorally successful.

Ford is not a right-wing ideologue. He will be branded as a radical, but he is far from one.  Those that will affix such labels never intend to vote for the guy.  They aren’t ‘others’.  It won’t matter.

Doug Ford turns the Ontario electoral map completely upside down.  Ford will win Toronto area seats.  Ford will keep all the rural PC seats.  Ford will win in the North.  NDP seats will be in play as well as Liberal ones.  I mean, I can’t name a Tory who can draw 400 people to a Welland rally on 48 hours notice.   This thing is going to be interesting.  The only thing limiting Doug Ford in achieving this is time.

Ford’s key strength is often seen as his Achilles heel: His brand.  But that’s the thing about politics and leadership races.  Having a brand comes off well.  It makes you more authentic and believable.  He comes off as a straight shooter, rebel rouser, folksy leader. He sticks to his commitment to righting the wrongs, being devoted to the taxpayer, and speaking on behalf of the have-nots.  He covers most of the factions of the conservative movement – accept, perhaps for uber-educated, suburban living, Tory professionals who may cringe at the prospect of going to work on Monday.  This ‘blue-collar PhD’ may be the exception.  He delivers a clear message and looks you right in the eye.  He may not be the most sophisticated policy guy you’ll ever find, but he communicates what he knows with precision.  We haven’t had this since Mike Harris in 1995.  This is the reversed mix to what we’re used to; I used to joke that we have more policy people than communications people in the party, and the Liberals had more communications people than policy people.  Maybe the Tories are in for a correction.

Doug Ford carries the baggage of his brother, who most remember for his controversial behaviour and erratic governance.  But Rob Ford’s path to victory should be the lesson for Doug Ford’s path to victory.  If Rob Ford could win an election in the most progressive, and largest city in Ontario, imagine what Doug Ford can do in communities more in line with his brand!

Good luck, Doug! As Jason Kenny said… Let’s Get’er Done!

WTF PCs

This is crazy! I can’t put my phone down and it starts buzzing again.  ‘Did you hear the latest?’ one writes.  Another says ‘What the hell is going on?’ Amidst this chaos, my e-mail lights up: dozens of people have signed up to volunteer for the party.  Volunteer for what, one wonders, or for whom?  There are so many things that make this episode so fascinating!

Another friend wonders what happens on Tuesday: Does Patrick Brown challenge Vic Fedeli for the Opposition Leader’s chair? Does he race to stand up first to ask the first question and who does the Speaker recognize? This thing could get even more unprecedented before it is over.

Then, there is Patrick Brown, who was kicked out of the PC Caucus yesterday morning, and then, by the afternoon, he throws down his money to run for the job he won in 2015 and lost last month by being pushed out by his colleagues.  He is doing the Bernie Saunders – running for leader of a political party while sitting as an independent in the legislature.  I’m going to doubt that Brown’s donations average ’27 dollas’ a person like Bernie’s.

This is so ridiculous. It reminds me of what happened after the fallout from the 2014 General Election.  As I watched the TVO debate, what you had, in essence, was 4 would be successors running away from the positions of the previous leader.  What you had was 4 leadership candidates giving lukewarm remarks about whether Patrick Brown would even be welcome to run for his seat.  There was nobody who stood behind him, and now we wonder why he’s fighting back?

This was a caucus all angling to be in Patrick Brown’s cabinet before these allegations and all but one knifed him after. In 2014, Tim Hudak faced the same thing.  And I remember from that time, Tim loyalists, and there still are a great many out there, felt abandoned by their party.  So it doesn’t at all surprise me that Patrick Brown has loyalists, and that they want to have him finish what he started.  .

I could go on and on. But here is the thing.  Right now, 70-80% of the electorate want a new government.  As unheard of as the PC chaos is, that kind of desire for change is rarely seen in democracies.  The Liberals are woefully unpopular.  February and March should have been about how we wondered if Kathleen Wynne could hold on to her party’s leadership, but you won’t see those stories anymore.

No, none of the Liberal government’s challenges are  headline news.  What is news is the fact that the party has an identity crisis.  Within our own party, we ebb and flow from one extreme to the other.  However, most people in the party don’t belong to either extreme.  They exist in this middle mass of people who want good, honest government. They want a government that doesn’t spend more than it takes in revenue. They want a government that puts people ahead of special interests.  They want a government that removes barriers for private sector job creation. They want the best health system in the world, and an even better education for their kids than they are currently receiving.  They want safe streets and clean communities.  It’s neither hard nor complicated.  Say it simply, and win an election. There is still time, but not much!

PCs need not see the past as prologue for the future

Tories can be their own worst enemy.  Just when victory is in its sight, turmoil seems to erupt. We go through this process where we elect our leaders through the most open and democratic method of any political party only to have that leadership instantly questioned post leadership in perpetuity.  No, I’m not just speaking of Patrick Brown but I am speaking of all our leaders since Mike Harris.

Leaderships always bring out a schism in the party.  Factions, real or pretend, form.  The party has been at times made up of an unholy alliance between shades of red or blue.  Victory in a general election is about the only thing that quiets that schism.  Failure in that general election only accentuates it. This story has played out over and over again over the last 15 years.

In that time, everyone tries to pigeon hole the other.  Some times people think I am too blue or too red, too establishment or too anti-establishment, for the leader or against the leader.  This same song and dance is the day in the life of too many members of Ontario’s Tories.  It’s a form of internal party heuristics that allows people to cast aspersions on the other, if they so find them ‘not like me.’ And if we so happen to think the leader is ‘not like me,’ we throw in the towel and refuse to go all in. We eat ourselves alive.  The enemy is not the other parties, it’s found within!

So here’s my baseline in this Tory leadership fast track. Fellow members, take part in a lively debate.  Set up shop with a camp, and have a thorough and vigorous debate.  But please, please, please, when this is all said and done, set aside your petty differences.  Understand that your calling to be involved in politics is not about the party’s success, but it’s to make life better for Ontarians.

Members need to take this pledge: I pledge to ensure that the next leader of the Ontario PC Party, whoever that leader is, becomes the next premier of Ontario.  I will work for the leader and for the nominated candidates to ensure that a strong, stable, majority provincial Conservative government is in office in 2018 and beyond.  Enough said.

The final chapter of the biggest scandal in Ontario’s history

cri de coeur of parliamentarians that oppose government is to call everything, real or not, a scandal.  To be sure, as I have written on these pages before, there were many within our own ranks that questioned whether this gas plants scandal really amounted to a scandal at all.  However, what is undeniably true about the gas plants scandal is this: there has never – I mean never! – been a scandal in Canadian history that has been so independently verified. There were two Auditor-General reports, an Information and Privacy Commissioner Report, an OPP Investigation, a Crown attorney to take the case, and now a judge ruling that criminal things happened.

If you were to ask me in the spring of 2012 whether the cancellation costs of the gas plants that we were asking about in the Estimates Committee would still be part of our public discourse in January 2018, I’d have laughed.  And while we had the Energy Minister sitting in our cross hairs, many in the PC Caucus wanted to talk about wind turbines instead.  Funny how consequential priorities can be!

Then, as things got hot in the fall of 2012 with my successful contempt motion – the first successful contempt motion in more than a century – things got so out of control for the government, that it had to prorogue and McGuinty announced his resignation.  Being in contempt of parliament is a serious charge, as serious as being in contempt of court.  It occurred to me at the time how serious it was. We were charging that the Minister of Energy, the Ministry of Energy, and the Ontario Power Authority did not disclose e-mails it was obligated to disclose by order of the Estimates Committee.  It was important to word it that way.  Both opposition parties didn’t want it worded that specifically Chris Bentley, the Minister responsible at the time, was in contempt.  Our deal with the NDP was predicated on maintaining the Minister responsible rather than the individual himself be named in our push. Of course, this is something that was subtle but important, and Liberals never saw this as anything less than a witch hunt against one of their most competent ministers.  Nevertheless, the gloves were off and I pushed forth knowing that I just placed a huge target on my back.  You may not have known this, but it turns out that a lot of politicians don’t like that kind of fight.  However, I just felt like I was elected to do my job holding the government to account, and I wasn’t going to be afraid to do it.

During debate of my contempt motion, every Liberal speech made sure to mention that “the motion form the Member for Cambridge…” i.e. me… “is mean spirited and vindictive.” It didn’t matter that the majority of members of the legislature agreed with the motion.  I got the sense that I was going to be a punching bag for awhile.  After McGuinty announced his resignation, he met the press and told them that the historic contempt motion was “phoney” and that the whole contempt debate basically shut down parliament to deal with nonsense garbage for more than a week.  I think it touched a nerve.  Oh, and in some of the e-mails we retrieved that weren’t deleted, we found out that the Premier’s Office debated suing some of us in the opposition over the debacle.  They opted against that strategy because they’d have to disclose e-mails during the trial’s discovery, which is what they wanted to avoid.

Then, in 2014, we lost an election. With a target on my back, I lost too.  They say politics is a blood sport, and I had to lick my wounds.  A lot has been said about that election.  You know, the Tory campaign was death by 100,000 job cuts or that we snapped defeat from the jaws of victory.  However, I saw then, and see now, that the election was not about any one policy.  It was about which would triumph more: Truth or Deceit.  The biggest problem of the Tory campaign in my mind wasn’t the 100,000 job cuts.  It was that we couldn’t focus the electorate on the fact that this government will do anything and say anything to be in power.  We had hundreds of thousands of e-mails – the ones that weren’t deleted – to prove it too.  But there we were, being bluntly honest about what we would do without reminding the electorate enough about why we were doing it.  Instead, our honesty was spun with the same dishonesty we have come to expect.  Reducing 100,000 jobs in the public sector meant we were “firing” people or giving them “pink slips.” I wonder if the 8,000 people who work for Hyrdo One got “fired” once their public sector job turned into a private sector one when the government privatized it?  Oh the stuff I’d say if I was still in office!  Yet, in 2014, we failed.  I failed. It was a tough pill to swallow given how relentless we had been in the legislature.  The men and women I served with, both as a caucus and along with our staff, were an incredibly talented group deserving of a shot to govern. It was so disappointing not to have had that shot. I know I am echoing the sentiments of our caucus and staff when I say this.

Returned with a majority government, the Liberals washed the whole contempt and committee report under the rug.  To this day, I have not returned to the legislative chambers, but I remember watching the proceedings all summer long, both in debate and in committee.  It was killing me, and I had to stop watching.  I mean, all that hard work, all those long hours, all that reading, all that strategy, all that media, all that tour, and barely anything to show for it.  I got McGuinty’s memoir for Christmas. I read it all.  It still sits on my bedside table. The title is called “Making a Difference” and the book reads as fluffy as the title.  No contrition in the book.  No regret.  Only great things.  I remember clearly feeling that history would not be written the way I saw it.  So I stopped writing my version.

To my surprise, the OPP continued to investigate.  When I met with the OPP investigators assigned to the case in my Queen’s Park office in 2013, they told me their investigation would take a very long time – months, if not years.  Then, charges were laid.  A Crown attorney pursued those charges, and, all of a sudden, what I felt was lost came back.  I followed the trial closely.  I knew the material as well as anyone.   When Peter Wallace took the stand, I simply could not believe what I was hearing.   To be clear, I had not expected Peter Wallace to be a great witness.  We called him to testify in committee responsible for the contempt charges, and while we thought he was competent, we didn’t get much out of him.  In hindsight, it’s probably because we didn’t ask him the right questions, and probably he feels more liberated to talk about it now that he’s out of the provincial government.

And then, a remarkable thing happened last week.  Something entirely shocking, in fact.  The judge in the trial found Livingston guilty of destroying evidence.  The Crown attorney emerged from court saying he wants to lock him up.  I really could not believe it.  Now, if I was in politics, I probably would have said something stupid like ‘we’re pleased with the verdict, but it’s a sad day for Ontario.’  Screw that! The verdict was a victory for democracy, for good public administration, for the integrity of the Freedom of Information process, for people who want accountable and responsible government, and for those that seek the truth.

I have had an unusual spring in my step.  Now there is something to show for all those long days and nights.  They say in politics that your true worth and contribution isn’t likely known until some years have passed since you left. That is ringing true for me now.

It is somewhat odd to see that in the court of law you are successful where you couldn’t be in the court of public opinion.  Last week’s ruling validated our pursuit of the truth in ways I am only starting to explain.  So maybe I will get to write the final chapter of the biggest scandal in Ontario’s history after all, except my tail won’t at all be fluffy.