Dalton McGuinty’s opponents welcomed a report from the Fraser Institute last month as hunters welcome fresh boxes of ammunition. With Ontario in the midst of an election campaign, the right-leaning think-tank released a study casting its premier as a poor financial manager, second only to Prince Edward Island’s Robert Ghiz in economic ineptitude. The report ranked former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell as the most competent guardian of the public pocketbook. According to the measures employed by the study’s authors, Campbell did an excellent job by containing government spending, lowering taxes and running budget surpluses. In comparison, McGuinty hiked spending and incurred deficits. The institute praised Campbell for pursuing “better fiscal policies than his provincial counterparts.” But the report fails to consider one of Campbell’s best ideas, one shared by McGuinty. Both premiers last year implemented a harmonized sales tax (HST), exactly the sort of fiscal policy needed in this country. Their decisions seem even bolder now, as the political implications of doing the right thing have become apparent.
Outrage over the tax reform forced Campbell’s resignation last November, and a provincial referendum subsequently killed the HST. McGuinty’s foes cite his “tax grab” as a reason to oust him in the Oct. 6 election. But neither Ontario’s NDP nor its Progressive Conservatives have promised to end the harmonization, tacit acknowledgement the move will benefit the province’s economy by reducing the financial burden on businesses and streamlining the tax system. It would be unfortunate if anger over the HST dissuaded other politicians from pursuing bold policy ideas of their own.
Canada desperately needs creative thinking from its provincial leaders. With the global outlook perilous, Canadians are again asking how the federal government will protect and bolster our economic future. But the financial decisions of premiers are as important as those of the prime minister. The five provincial and two territorial elections taking place between Oct. 3 and Nov. 7 present a tremendous opportunity to demand better policy from our elected officials. Voters would be wise to look beyond their own bank accounts and consider which parties offer the best ideas for sustaining and expanding their provincial economies as a whole. Decisions made now will have implications for decades to come.
This is why the debate in Ontario’s election has been so disappointing. In one example, PC leader Tim Hudak dismissed the Liberals’ promise of a tax credit for hiring immigrants as a perk for “foreign workers.” There are many legitimate reasons for rejecting a further complication in Ontario’s already complex tax system, but resorting to xenophobia is unhelpful and an insult to voters.
It’s also a waste, because these campaigns are producing policy ideas worthy of discussion. As western editor Michael McCullough notes in this issue, Saskatchewan’s NDP opposition has proposed a savings fund for the province’s resource royalties (page 14), an idea aimed at ensuring long-term prosperity. Like so much happening in provincial politics today, a serious debate about this policy will serve the broader national interest.