Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Attention and Deficit

The election is ten days away. Very soon Ontarians will be travelling to the polls on October 6 to cast their ballots and select the MPPs that will make up out fortieth Ontario legislature. However, it appears to me at least that many Ontarians have been sleepwalking through this election. The media has been quite quiet on the election. This is largely because most Ontarians receive their media from national or international (see American) sources – which don’t really speak to the Ontario election.

The local coverage in my newspapers has even been a little disappointing. Virtually every riding in Niagara is considered competitive with all three major parties involved. I’ve heard ads on the radio, and seen the lawn signs, but still. I noticed a lot more lawn signs around during the May election earlier this year.

On a positive note the leaders’ debate is tonight! With the debate interrupting normal television on many channels it might awaken the Ontario electorate to the upcoming decision they are being asked to make. The debate is going to be a big event in this election. The most recent polls over the last few days have shown the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals very close, virtually tied. In addition the NDP have been building up steam and growing. If any of the three leaders – Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak, or Andrea Horwath – have a strong night, it could change everything.

Keeping my promise from the beginning of the election I’ll turn my attention back to an issue. This week I would like to talk about government spending and the deficit. In August Ontario’s deficit was estimated at $14 billion. The total amount of the Ontario budget is about $125 billion. Therefore approximately one in ten dollars spent by the Ontario government is borrowed at this point in time.

Deficits make poor election issues. Why? Because while it is exceedingly easy to make a budget deficit it is monstrously painful to get rid of one. To correct this problem serious tax increases or spending cuts are required, and probably some combination of both.

Fear not for our valiant leaders have stepped forward! All three parties are promising to balance the budget by fiscal year 2017. It should be noted that the Green Party is promising to balance the books by 2015. How? That’s a good question, one which the parties are having a lot of trouble answering. In my honest opinion the Progressive Conservatives and Tim Hudak have the least credibility on this issue. Running a platform of tax cuts and maintaining spending and yet balancing the budget is pure fantasy. Both the NDP and Liberals are promising new spending, but the Liberal’s programs are quite modest overall. The NDP hope to balance their new spending with an increase in the corporate tax rate. An increase in the tax rate would put Ontario at par with our nearest competitors.

Ever since the conservative revolutions of the 1980s deficits have become a major issue. Candidates from all over the spectrum are now adamant for the need of a balanced budget. Believe it or not only a few decades ago the idea of deficits was not taken into account. As Adam Radwanski pointed out in the Globe not so very long ago none of the parties are takingthis issue particularly seriously. Governments want balanced budgets, but at the moment it doesn’t seem entirely necessary. In this time of economic hardship government spending helps keep the economy moving, even if it produces deficits.

Despite Ontarians’ desire for balanced books, and the parties’ claims that they will achieve them, the pressure isn’t there. Without the public pushing for it, it will not happen. Planning our future budget plans though seems a bit risky right now, especially with the dark news coming out of Europe. Perhaps that’s the bigger question, who should lead us into suchuncertain times? Next time I’ll try to end on a happier note.

A reminder that I am writing for Speak Your Mind and the Toronto Star.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Moving Voters, Transit in Niagara

Transit is definitely an election issue this year. It may not be a top priority for everyone but there is a growing number of people who view it as one of their top concerns. Most of the people who think about transit when they cast a ballot live in our big urban centres, like Toronto, Ottawa or perhaps even Mississauga.

However, here in Niagara transit might have more traction than in other regions. Niagara is not officially part of the Greater Toronto Area, but much of its economic activity is tied to proximity to Toronto and the American border. The ability for people to move through this region is critical for its development and continued success.

On that note the Regional Council within the last few months has finally given the green light to intercity transit. Soon buses will be running between the major urban centres of the region. The long-promised and debated service will greatly help people get between communities which could only get to before by private vehicle or cab at prohibitive cost. Therefore, transit has been something on the minds of Niagara voters for a long time.

The provincial parties have all made commitments to the Niagara Region or transit in general. The Progressive Conservatives have made the fewest direct commitments to transit investment in Ontario. They have promised municipalities will receive “a fair share” of the gas taxes to fund transit project. They have also stated they will end the war on the car, which may be code for a less friendly transit policy.

One big Conservative promise that should be mentioned is that Tim Hudak has promised to push ahead with the Mid-Peninsula Highway. The highway would provide a third freeway through the Niagara Region to relieve congestion on the at-capacity Queen Elizabeth Expressway. The highway is controversial, and I’m personally sceptical of a highways ability to relieve congestion, rather than shifting it away temporarily.

The Ontario Liberals have promised full-day Go trainservices across the province. Niagara only recently got plugged into the Go system with connections in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. The on-again-off-again train services in the region have been due to concerns about demand and improving track services in the area. It has been a major benefit to commuters as it is considerably cheaper than private bus companies or private travel into the GTA. In addition I’ve heard more than a few anecdotal stories of travellers using the service for day trips to Toronto for hockey or baseball games, cultural events – concerts or plays, or just shopping trips. The Liberals are also promising to continue their commitment to transit investment.

The New Democrats are the party going the furthest in their transit policy. Andrea Horwath and the ONDP have promised to freeze faresacross the province. In return to the fares being pegged at a fixed price the province will assume half the cost of transit in municipalities. I half-expected mad calls of socialism to follow this promise, but apparently the exact same program was in place before 1998 in Ontario. In vote rich Toronto this might be a particularly attractive commitment with the promise of TTC cuts on the horizon. Still, a greater role in transit will be beneficial to municipalities. It will either free up more funds for investment (new buses, repairs, etc.) or cities can shift their funds to other areas requiring attention. Most cities will likely do a little bit of both.

In the riding of Welland the large student population is highly dependent on transit. Citizens of Welland and Port Colborne would benefit from closer freeway access. A better link to the GTA, in no matter what form, would benefit the region.

A special note to sign off on, the Welland candidates met last night in debate in Port Colborne, and will be meeting again tomorrow in Thorold. If you’d like to see the Welland area candidates square off you care at the Four Points at the Sheraton in Thorold, across from Brock University. I’ll be there watching, and I suppose covering the event.

A reminder that I am writing for Speak Your Mind and the Toronto Star, however my latest posts haven’t gone up yet.

Finally, Elections Ontario is making the voting process extra easy with this attractive and easy-to-use website, check it out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shocking Voters, the Dim Truth of Power Policy

According to much of the polling and discussion that surrounded the preceding months leading up to this election one can say quite convincingly that one of the top issues on the minds of Ontarians is electricity and its cost. Over the last four years under the McGuinty Liberals the citizens of Ontario have seen their electricity bill grow. Two major components that have led to the increases are the Green Energy Act and the HST.

These two points have been contentious talking points for the both the NDP and PCs in their effort to target Ontario voters on ‘pocketbook issues’. But despite public outcry on their hydro bills, and the desire for things to change there is shockingly little that any new government would be able to reasonably do to reverse the trend.

Why is energy so expensive?

As near as I can tell the cost of electricity has increased in Ontario for the same reason that many other infrastructure assets have. Our system was largely built in another time, back when large government spending and a public willing to tolerate deficits and investment built much of the structure that we enjoy today. The second factor is the growth in population and the commiserate increase in demand. With now over twelve million Ontarians, each with televisions, homes, air conditioning, and computers we use a lot of electricity.

Back to the infrastructure, much of what we have, what already is in place is aging, and needs to be replaced or upgraded. For a Niagara example we just have to look to the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project which is adding even more capacity to the province. Demand is increasing and our supply is tightening. Both PC and Liberal governments have vowed to shut down coal plants across the province. The Liberals have also pledged to support nuclear power to meet the rising demand.

In an effort to create more supply and diversify the type of the supply the government of Ontario brought in the Green Energy Act to promote these types of developments. Wind and solar projects, which are providing a small, but growing amount of our electricity has been partially subsidized, if I understand correctly, to nursemaid the industry. McGuinty and his government are quite proud of their project and tout their green jobs.

HST, the reformed GST and PST, applied to home electricity bill. The added 13% added some much undesired sticker shock to Ontarian consumers.

What can be done to fix this problem? In short, not much.

The options to increase the supply of electricity is one, very expensive and two, politically difficult. Environmentalists and health analysts object to the appearance and expansion of fossil fuel-powered generating stations, nuclear power has received another black eye in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear incident and there are no more sources of hydroelectric power left to exploit. We are constrained then to these small projects, like wind or solar, or more controversial options.

The opposition parties tacitly acknowledge this fact, as do the governing Liberals. The best they can do is offer small reliefs on the bills, and not a substantial change in policy. Here’s how it breaks down: to meet the energy needs of Ontarians the Liberals want to invest in nuclear (plans to expand Darlington were recently announced) and green energy alternatives, the Progressive Conservatives are banking on traditional power sources (including nuclear) coupled with natural gas. Finally the NDP take an interesting tact, they oppose nuclear power, and the fossil fuel, and instead argue that more effort to conserve electricity would better serve the province in reducing demand, rather than increasing supply.

In short, the parties are not that far apart from each other, and electricity is not a terribly partisan issue. If the province hit a major energy problem any one of the parties would open back up a coal plant to make sure the lights stayed on.

Efforts to make bills more affordable are largely a smokescreen. The Liberal rebate, offering about $200 per Ontario household does nothing to combat usage costs. Both the NDP and PCs are promising to remove the HST from hydro bills, but that again is only a small part. The Conservatives’ promise to clean out the implied corruption will do nothing to prices, and the elimination of Smart Meters may have a modest effect at best. Cuts in the kilowatt/hour price will likely mean increased demand which will trigger costs in providing more production.

The effect on Niagara broadly and the Welland riding in specific is interesting. The heaviest users of electricity is industry – or were. Cheap hydro costs help attract manufacturing to our province and generate jobs. High costs drive businesses to lower cost markets. I’m confident part of the reason Niagara was an industrial bastion in the twentieth century was the reliable and large quantity of power coming from the Falls.

Without a major investment in capacity (supply) or conservation (demand), or best, both energy prices will continue to rise. If the cost is deferred from home electric bills as some parties would like they will appear elsewhere as long-term debt, private-public partnerships, or increased taxes.

In the end one of the big issues of the campaign is one the next government will have little control over. Ontario’s electricity needs are growing and the cost to keep rates low and grow our production will be high, and someone must pay. The parties merely disagree on the fine points, what type or power generation they like best and what your bill should look like.

Also! I have been selected by the Toronto Star and Speak Your Mind to act as a Community Blogger during the 2011 Ontario election for the riding of Welland. Last week I posted on the shape of the race in this riding, including the main candidates, their bios and the background to this election, please check it out. I will try to keep the link between this blog and my Speak Your Mind page as solid as possible. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Get Ready, Get Set... Gone?

It’s a big season for politics. The federal election was now four months ago... which is shocking and deeply worrying that four months feels like three weeks. But now there are six (possibly seven) provincial and territorial elections about to get started in Canada. Today the writs were dropped in the provinces of Prince Edward Island and Manitoba signalling the official start of their elections. Political watchers say that the writ will be dropped in Ontario tomorrow, Wednesday the 7th of September triggering our next election. The election itself will be held on October 6, 2011.

However, anyone watching Ontario news broadcasts or reading local papers will probably have gotten a sense that this election has been on its way for a while, and it has been. Elections in a parliamentary system traditionally occur when the government is defeated – sometimes by its own making, or dissolved because it has reached the end of its mandate. Relatively recently in Canada’s political development fixed election dates have been added. In a previous blog post, I discussed in part some of the reasons I am opposed to fixed election dates.

John Pepall, political scientist and author of Against Reform, states in his book that the data that giving the power to call elections to the Premier or Prime Minister does not necessarily give him/her an advantage. The most clear cut example led to a defeat of the Peterson Liberals in Ontario. But I digress.

For the last few months, but really for the last year or so the political parties have been readying themselves. This means that much of the actions over the last year has been in effort to gain support for the coming election, this bothers me and hurts governance, but I wish to talk about the actual election and how I plan to cover it.

Because the parties have known the election is coming they all have released their platforms! A journalist with the Globe and Mail, Steve Ladurantaye, went through both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative platforms and laid out all of their expressed promises therein. Mr. Ladurantaye did not annotate the NDP platform, but they give the bullet points themselves. Links follow:

Some background on this election. Dalton McGuinty, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and current Premier is seeking a third term. The OLP has 70 seats within the Legislative Assembly. There is some evidence that the people of Ontario have grown tired of McGuinty after eight years in power. Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and of the Opposition, is leading in the polls and may become the next Premier. His party must shed the burden of his unpopular predecessors, namely Mike Harris. Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, must raise her profile to become known in the province. In addition she must win over Ontarians who have not embraced the NDP since the bad days of Bob Rae’s premiership. The PCs have 26 seats and the NDP have 10, 54 are needed to form a majority government.

For this election I plan to do it a little differently than how I covered the federal one. In the federal one I tracked polls and made projections, this time I’ll do that less. This time I’m going to pick a major issue in the campaign – even if it isn’t the topic of the week – and discuss it. I have six outlined already, but I don’t want to commit in case an issue arises in the campaign. If any readers have something in particular they like to see covered, please let me know.

Below are some links for websites that track elections and may provide projections and analysis that you may be interested in checking out.

Projections and Analysis:

DemocraticSpace (He may not be covering this election) 

That does it now, I look forward to the next month in an election that will shape Ontario’s future.