With a few days left before the June 7th provincial election, northern Ontario voters face important choices and consequences. The governing Liberals appear headed for defeat if one is to believe the evolving poll trackers. Indeed, Premier Wynne has acknowledged the election is lost. This means that come June 8th there will be a new government with consequences for the region in terms of public policy. Public policy is of importance to the region given government’s role in health, education and transportation, the dependence of the region on government employment for economic sustenance and the stalled regional economy, which has seen little net employment growth compared to the rest of the province.
The Liberals have been in power since 2003 and their tenure encompasses the forest sector crisis and the stalled Ring of Fire. On the one hand, the forest sector crisis was a function of a rising Canadian dollar, aging private pulp mills and increased competition from abroad. On the other hand, the increase in electricity rates did not help. As for the Ring of Fire, in the end it is not going anywhere until chromite prices rise no matter how much is spent on infrastructure. The Liberal government’s short-term response to northern development was increased government spending in the region via assorted projects and initiatives including highway work. The long-term response was the 25-year northern Ontario growth plan – which it must be noted actually predates the Wynne government. Interestingly enough, to date the growth plan has not been accompanied by significant results and more to the point, there has been no mention of it during the current campaign. Make of that what you wish. However, given Premier Wynne has acknowledged the election is lost, thought must also be given to ensuring the region has some representation in any new government that is formed.
The NDP has surged in the polls since the election was called and their policies in health, pharma care, education, rent control and hydro seem mainly to be extensions of what the Liberals have been campaigning on. For a region dependent on government job creation, an NDP government would be business as usual but with a more ideological bent away from market-based solutions to the region’s issues. If one wants to differentiate the two parties when it comes to northern policies, one would have to say a key difference is that the pleasant Andrea Horwath is presently more popular than Kathleen Wynne. However, when the rest of the team accompanying Horwath is examined more closely one wonders about the depth of talent available to serve in portfolios like northern development, natural resources and health not to mention finance. Most of her team seems drawn from public sector, labor union, non-profit and social activism sectors. Even the usually ubiquitous lawyers that dot politics are relatively scarce. Aside from a short–term continuation of government spending, the long-term economic benefits of an NDP government for northern Ontario are uncertain despite the claim of change for the better.
Just as uncertain are what the benefits of a Doug Ford government would be for northern Ontario given the lack of a detailed and clearly articulated northern platform. Natural resource revenue sharing has been promised as well as a jump start to the Ring of Fire but as noted earlier, the price of chromite is not going anywhere soon. If the desire is simply for policy change, that would certainly be provided by a Conservative government more so than by the NDP but that change given traditional conservative values, is likely to not support the current orientation of the region towards public sector dependency. On the other hand, given that we have been subjected to activist government economic development policies for several decades, it may be time for a different approach. Moreover, whatever one might think of Doug Ford, it remains that his team would include some proven talent when it comes to northern Ontario – Greg Rickford, Norm Miller and Vic Fedeli come to mind. Further reflection should also be given to the prospect that based on the distribution of votes, poll trackers are suggesting a high probability of a Doug Ford administration.
So what is a northern Ontario voter to do? Good question. Think about the region and its economy and the direction you think it should go. Think about what the benefits and cost of each party and their policies might be to you and your families and friends. Then make your decision and go vote. None of the above is really not an option. One must make a choice from the options available. On June 8th, the sun will still rise. The northern Ontario economy will still face challenges and they will need to be tackled no matter who forms the government. That is the only certainty.