McGuinty bucks trend with activist agenda

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Thu Apr 22 2010.   By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page

Hardly a day passes lately without taxpayers, lobby groups or opposition politicians attacking Premier Dalton McGuinty and his Liberal government at Queen’s Park.

Pharmacists are furious with McGuinty’s plans to slash generic drug prices; consumers are upset with the new harmonized sales tax; struggling manufacturers are angry over higher energy prices.

Lost amid the daily criticism is the recognition that McGuinty is running the only activist government in Canada today.

Indeed, his government is pursuing an aggressive — and progressive — agenda that involves making tough, often unpopular choices that he believes will eventually result in a better future for Ontario.

It’s a sweeping program, from health care and early childhood learning to the environment, tax reform and more.

And it originates with a leader who is rarely considered a visionary.

But a vision is what McGuinty has — and he’s acting on it without much fanfare.

Each initiative in this aggressive agenda has been met with stiff opposition, even death threats in the case of the drug reform plan.

At the same time, McGuinty has been forced to deal with the impact of the deep recession on the province and with the fallout of major scandals at eHealth and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

But that hasn’t stopped McGuinty from pushing ahead.

Such an approach is rare these days in political leaders. Most politicians are focused on the short-term, calling simply for tax cuts because they’re popular with voters, but fearful of tackling the really tough issues for fear of upsetting those same voters.

With the notable exception of Ontario, governments across Canada, including in Ottawa, act these days like mere caretakers, dabbling at the edges of policies and programs, but reluctant to implement the major reforms necessary to actually produce significant improvement in the lives of most residents.

In McGuinty’s case, though, it appears he has decided that, despite a lousy economy and scarce resources, his government will be proactive and focus on a few top priorities.

Here are the key parts of his activist agenda:

Drug prices: Just two weeks ago, the government announced reforms that would see patients with prescriptions for generic drugs paying about half the current contend. Pharmacists and drugstore chains are now threatening to close stores and cut services. Still, McGuinty is forging on in an effort to curb soaring cost of health care, which now consumes 46 cents of every dollar spent on government programs.

Early childhood learning: Despite calls for him to go slow because of the province’s economic troubles, McGuinty is sticking to his promise to launch a new program that, starting in September, will provide full-day learning for 4- and 5-year-olds, along with fee-based, before- and after-school daycare. Although costly at $1.5 billion a year, the payoff will be enormous, with Ontario becoming a world leader in educating young children.

Tax reform: Conservative Leader Tim Hudak calls McGuinty’s controversial decision to implement the harmonized sales tax (HST) in July a massive “tax grab.” But respected economists say the tax plan will be good for most businesses and will actually benefit low-income families because of accompanying cuts in other tax areas.

Environment: Critics complain the government’s Green Energy Act will increase electricity rates, which would make manufacturers less competitive and result in more lost jobs. In the last decade, 250,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. McGuinty felt a radically new approach to job creation was needed.

Environmentalists hail the act as one of the most progressive in North America. It’s designed to promote energy generation from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, with the hope of creating 50,000 new jobs.

Taken together, these initiatives form the heart of the legislative legacy on which McGuinty and his Liberal MPPs will campaign in the next election, set for October, 2011.

The Liberals’ popularity has been slipping since the last election. The latest poll had Liberal support at 38 per cent, with the Conservatives under Hudak at 34 per cent and the NDP, led by Andrea Horwath, at 15 per cent.

As the election approaches, McGuinty must shift voters’ attention away from the bad news about the economy and scandals and toward his government’s vision for the future.

Promoting his activist agenda is a good starting point.

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