The feeling of dissatisfaction accompanying the provincial election is allowing Tim Hudak’s Conservatives to dredge up old ideas about reshaping government, and that’s bad news for Toronto.
The 1990s are in the air: we have a potential presidential showdown between a Bush and a Clinton on the horizon, Monica Lewinsky is making headlines, and everyone’s excited about the new Star Wars trilogy. There’s a scandal-plagued, free-spending government in Ontario facing a pretty big backlash as an election campaign begins. According to polls, more than three-quarters of voters say it’s time for a change of government at Queen’s Park.
Faced with numbers like that, opposition leader Tim Hudak might be expected to try to safely sail into office on the waves of discontent by simply promising a more responsible, even-keeled hand on the tiller. But it seems that he’s nostalgic, too, because instead of appealing to voters’ simple desire to move on, he’s promising as bold and controversial a small-government platform as anything we’ve seen since Mike Harris’s 1995 Common Sense Revolution.
This Harris-like message was a little hard to see at first. Much of Hudak’s communication has been muddled by botched campaign logistics. It’s not just presser problems, either: His core platform is wrapped in the puzzling banner of his “Million Jobs Plan.”
Now, there’s no mystery why Hudak would want to campaign on jobs—at least not here in Toronto, where the most recent unemployment numbers have ticked up half a point in the past year to 9.4 per cent. Still, at a glance the math seems odd. There are only about 550,000 unemployed people in Ontario’s labour force, so his million-jobs promise seems to require a lot of new workers. And so far, the specifics seem to be primarily about training, corporate tax cuts and—ironically—job cuts.
At this point, the deservedly headline-grabbing part of the “Million Jobs Plan” is getting rid of 100,000 public servant positions—a decimation of the government payroll that’s likely to target teachers and municipal budgets above all else.
And that’s the stunningly retro core of Hudak’s campaign. Like Harris, Hudak’s main appeal seems to be a resolve to stick it to union workers and shut down parts of the government—getting it to do less, with less money, and to ask less of us. “Tear it down” is the rallying cry of populist conservatives like Harris and Rob Ford. Tear what down? It doesn’t matter. When people perceive waste, it’s a whole lot easier to conjure images of demolition than of careful and effective rebuilding. That’s a central part of Hudak’s appeal.
Give him credit for offering a distinctly different vision of the way the province should be run. He’s started outlining the blueprint for a leaner government that does fewer things, one whose relationship to labour unions is characterized by truculence rather than cooperation. None of it looks likely to produce more jobs (at least in the short term) or balance the books any faster, even if those are the top line claims.
But that contradiction is borrowed from Harris, too. Harris loudly complained about the deficits of the NDP and then, for all his layoffs and cuts to social services, never got around to balancing a budget because he was too busy slashing tax rates. No matter. Because it was clear what the real pitch was: Tear the place down. In light of recent high-profile Liberal scandals and long-delayed promises, it has a certain appeal.
Torontonians should be wary. We’ve spent a decade and a half trying to dig ourselves out of the financial mess Harris left us in, after he dumped all kinds of services onto the city while taking away our means of paying for them, hollowed out our infrastructure—and sent us into administrative chaos by amalgamating Toronto and its boroughs.
And before we also get caught up in a fog of nostalgia for the slash-and-burn politics of the Reality Bites era, we ought to remember that the details matter: How exactly will we manage this cutting? Who will pay for it? And for how long?