Sunday, August 21, 2011

The National Debate in Microcosm...brought to you by Ontario

Nearly four months have passed since the federal election, and we are about six weeks away from Ontario's trip to the polls. However, while there will have only been five months between the two elections by the time Ontarians vote, the economic landscape has shifted.

Since May 2, we have seen global economic conditions deteriorate - typified by the sovereign debt challenges in the European Union and the United States. Importantly, the spectre of a new phase to the economic crisis has fostered a more public and open debate about state finances and how to build a more sustainable model of government.

In just four months, external events have made voters more sensitive to the choices that Western governments are facing. This reality will shape the narrative of Ontario's election

More often than not an election is a mini-referendum on what has happened; a vote on the government's performance. Opposition parties don't win, governments lose. You can see elements of this in the Progressive Conservative's tactics thus far. Their goal is to make this election a referendum on the McGuinty government's record.

Fair enough. The voter should consider the government's performance, both on its face and as an indicator as to how they will govern going forward. Unfortunately, too often the focus becomes on the past and real discussion about the future is limited.

Ontario cannot afford such a campaign this time around.

The province was battered by the recession, its major trading partner is suffering and its manufacturing base continues to experience erosion. At the same time, the population is aging and social costs are continuing to climb. Current projections show a $16 billion deficit and a province that is $235 billion in debt.

These challenges demand a campaign that is forward looking; one which is seized on how best to strike the right balance between taxes and spending, cuts and investments, and how we can position Ontario for tomorrow. This is what the voter should expect and demand.

A campaign which brings an open debate on our challenges and choices is the type of campaign that Ontarians deserve. But it is also the type of campaign that Canadians should be watching.

Why? In many respects, Ontario's election will be a microcosm of our national debate - the debate we should have had in May. In May the federal election, depending on who you spoke to, was about Harper's contempt or the "socialist-separatist" power grab. It was more about whether to have a majority, and less about the challenges Canada is facing.

Four months on and external events have conspired to draw greater attention towards the real choices governments are facing as they deal with a world increasingly defined by uncertainty. Against this back-drop Ontario voters have an opportunity to consider how a prospective government will tackle the deficit, the environment, and social spending.

The outcome will not only affect Ontario. It will also influence how other provinces and, importantly, the federal government start to address these choices.

All to say...stay tuned.

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