ontario news watch

Government spending and provincial debt have exploded in Ontario over the past two decades. Racking it up has been a bipartisan affair.

Under the leadership of the province’s three latest premiers, Ontario transformed itself from a province with a relatively modest debt load to one crushed by the weight of a massive $400-billion debt burden.

It’s time for Ontario’s politicians to do something about it. Ontario needs a law forcing governments to keep spending increases at or below the rate of inflation to stand in the way of future fiscal recklessness.

But before looking further at the antidote to our problems, it’s important to first look at how we got here.

Dalton McGunity promised to be a responsible steward of the province’s finances when he ran for premier in 2003.

“Ontario deserves a government that will maintain fiscal discipline,” McGuinty told voters on the hustings.

McGuinty’s Liberals promised to abide by the Harris government’s balanced-budget law and work hard to reduce the debt.

“We will not add to the provincial debt,” the Liberal platform said. “We will pay down the debt as conditions allow, with all surpluses going directly to debt payment.”

It turns out the Liberal platform wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Government spending stood at $66 billion and the provincial debt was $110 billon when McGunity took over Queen’s Park. Government spending rose to $130 billion and the provincial debt reached $258 billion by the time McGunity presented his final budget 10 years later.

McGunity increased government spending by more than three times the rate of inflation.

Then along came Kathleen Wynne. Wynne jacked up government spending by another $48 billion and ballooned the debt to $308 billion in a span of just five years.

Wynne actually showed more fiscal restraint than McGunity, if one can even call it that. Instead of increasing spending at three times the rate of inflation, she increased spending at two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation.

Ontarians were tired of 15 years of reckless spending, borrowing and taxing by the time the 2018 election came around.

When Doug Ford entered the political scene, he promised to right the wrongs of his Liberal predecessors.

“The party is over with taxpayers’ money,” Ford declared as he crisscrossed the province.

Ford repeatedly pointed out that under the leadership of McGunity and Wynne, Ontario had become “the most indebted region in the entire world.”

A Progressive Conservative government would change all of that, Ford pledged.

But in the five years since Ford first sat down in the premier’s chair, he’s failed to put Ontario back on a sustainable course. He’s broken the most important promise he made to voters: end government waste and mismanagement.

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy tabled a plan to spend $199 billion and increase the provincial debt to $416 billion in the government’s 2023 fall fiscal update. He called the document a “responsible” plan.

Ontarians should ignore the government’s rhetoric.

The reality is there has been no spending restraint under Ford’s watch. Government spending has increased by $12 billion over and above the rate of inflation in the past five years.

So much for ending the party with taxpayers’ money.

If McGunity, Wynne and Ford had kept government spending increases in line with the rate of inflation, Ontario today would be spending $102 billion. The Ford government is set to spend nearly double that this year.

Ontario would be debt free and would have hundreds of billions of dollars in a rainy-day fund in that very same scenario.

Instead, taxpayers are on the hook for more than $1 billion a month in debt interest payments this year. That’s the equivalent of paying for a brand-new hospital every 30 days.

It’s time to break the cycle of debt and deficits.

Earlier this year, the government of Alberta passed a law mandating spending increases stay at or below the rate of inflation plus population growth.

The best time for Ford to have introduced that kind of legislation was five years ago. The second best time is right now. Ontario taxpayers cannot afford to wait any longer.

Taxpayers are fed up with paying more than $13 billion a year in interest on the debt, money that simply goes into the pockets of Bay Street bondholders.

It’s time for Ford to remember what he promised voters. Five years after he said he would clean up the Liberal mess at Queen’s Park, he’s only made a bad fiscal situation worse.

For the sake of future generations, Ford must balance the books and introduce a spending restraint law to ensure this sorry saga of ballooning deficits and debt finally comes to an end.

Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Two reports were released by the PLACE Centre at the Smart Prosperity Institute about the state of housing, both nationally and in Ontario specifically. It’s also the subject of some actual policy ideas within the Ontario Liberal leadership race, which seems to have its participants largely stepping up on a file that has been largely marginalized by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, at least in a substantive way—he has certainly used the rhetoric about the housing crisis as cover for the corrupt dealings that happened as part of the Greenbelt scandal that the province’s Auditor General outlined in no uncertain terms last week. While both reports—one on the rental housing situation in the country, the other about needing a plan to build 1.5 million homes in Ontario over the next decade—do contain a certain level of overlap between them, the key recommendation between both is coordination, not only between all levels of government, but also with industry and labour. And that’s the part that I worry the most about.

“No one actor in the system can ensure that housing completions keep pace with population growth,” the Ontario report recommends about coordination. “All orders of government, the higher education sector, builders, developers, and the non-profit sector all play a vital role.”

“Create a coordinated plan with all three orders of government and create an Industrial Strategy led by a roundtable of public and private builders, the non- profit housing sector, investors and labour,” the rental report states in its coordination recommendation. “The federal plan should include targets and accountability measures. The plan should include enhanced data collection, more robust and frequent population forecasts and better research to understand Canada’s housing system. The plan should also include a blueprint to fund deeply affordable housing, co-operative housing and supportive housing, along with seniors housing and student residences and double the relative share of non-market community housing.”

The housing crisis is one of the most pressing domestic issues the country faces, the notion of a national round-table discussion that involves the federal government, provinces, major municipalities, and representatives of labour, higher-education and developers seems unwieldly. I have no doubt that these conversations need to happen, and that it would probably help if most, if not all, of the players were in the same room together, but we have had a pretty terrible run lately in this country when it comes to calling big meetings to coordinate things. If you add in the Indigenous component that the rental report recommends, that may be an impossible task—not because they shouldn’t be included, but because their housing needs are so much vaster and more specialized in many cases (such as dealing with the challenges associated with remote communities who are only accessible by ice road for a few weeks out of the year) that it may strain the ability to come to any kind of joint resolution for action to its very breaking point.

Trying to salvage our failing public healthcare systems, particularly after the height of the COVID pandemic, has given us a taste of just how able our federal and provincial governments are when it comes to even trying to work together in order to solve what is a particularly existential crisis for one of Canada’s defining intuitions (well, according to public opinion surveys in any case). In that particular instance, you had provincial premiers who were willing to let the system collapse because they thought that it would give them additional leverage with the prime minister, whom they insisted on sitting down with in order to personally demand more money from, with no strings attached. It didn’t help that these same premiers were also in the thrall of a normalcy bias that had them believing that a healthcare collapse wouldn’t be that bad, because after all, the system didn’t collapse at the height of COVID, so why would it now? Suddenly emergency rooms were being force to close in some hospitals, and the premiers found out just what their unwillingness to do anything about the system was costing the public.

In the end, prime minister Justin Trudeau simply dictated terms to the provinces because they had caught themselves out, and he gave them some money—not nearly as much as they were demanding—with some of the tightest strings that have ever been attached to healthcare dollars, because the federal government had been particularly burned at the height of the pandemic when emergency dollars sent to the provinces didn’t go toward testing, tracing, nurses salaries, or shoring up the healthcare system in anyway. Rather, most provinces simply put the money directly onto their bottom lines in order to eliminate their deficits as their healthcare systems continued to deteriorate past the point of collapse.

I worry that the housing crisis will be little different—particularly as premiers are already demanding a face-to-face thirteen-on-one meeting with the prime minister on infrastructure and housing, which is transparently an attempt to try to bully him into simply turning over more money to them with no strings attached—the way they like it. Not to mention, the provinces already have a history of taking federal transfers intended for social housing, and much as they have done with healthcare dollars for decades, spent them on other things. And while the PLACE report recommendations do talk about targets and accountability measures, that is unlikely to happen without some pretty powerful incentives from the federal government, which is likely to mean money—a lot of it at a time when the federal government is trying to at least look like they’re interested in fiscal restraint.

None of this is to say that the different levels of government shouldn’t be meeting to try and hammer out some kind of coordinated effort on the housing crisis, because they absolutely should. My biggest worry, however, is that too much expectation is going to be placed on the federal government to do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, the work, and the financing to do what needs to be done, while premiers can feel content to not hold up their end of the bargain and put all of the blame on the federal government while legacy media says things like “nobody cares about jurisdiction.” We are in a housing crisis. We do need all hands on deck. But we also need to ensure that premiers or mayors can’t shirk their duties without consequences from the public, because that is where the pressure needs to come from.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is hitting the cities of Toronto and Ottawa with a wrecking ball that will undermine accountability and democracy.

The Ford government introduced Bill 39 as an attempt to break the gridlock often experienced on city councils in Toronto and Ottawa. The major reason Ford introduced the legislation is to prioritize the speedy approval and construction of new housing in some of Ontario’s most dense communities.

The main feature of the bill is that it gives the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa so-called strong mayor powers.

On the surface, the bill looks promising. Bill 39 would allow mayors in Toronto and Ottawa to have more control over appointments and establishing priorities for council. It would also allow those mayors to have more control over the budgetary process. And, by allowing mayors to establish priorities and have more control over council’s agenda, it could, in theory, help with the housing issue.

But that’s where the good parts of the bill end.

The most dangerous element of Bill 39 is that it would allow the mayor to pass laws that only receive the support of one third of council.

In a democracy, allowing just one third of council, if aligned with the mayor, to pass any law under the sun is extremely dangerous.

From Ford’s perspective, this bill also makes little sense. Right now, John Tory is the mayor of Toronto and Mark Sutcliffe is the mayor of Ottawa.

Both men appear to be amenable to parts of Ford’s agenda.

But, in theory, both mayors could also hold the province hostage. Imagine a scenario in which a duly elected mayor and a small minority of councillors choose to pass policies that run directly counter to provincial priorities.

Not too long ago, David Miller was mayor of Toronto. He pushed through some of the largest property tax hikes in the province’s history.

If Miller had only needed the support of one-third of council to raise property taxes, tax hikes could have soared. Instead of a 10 per cent hike, homeowners could have been looking at a 20 per cent increase.

The need to win the support of a majority of councillors is a key mechanism in ensuring that extreme policies don’t turn into ill-fated laws.

Ford claims Bill 39 is democratic. According to the premier, mayors are duly elected by voters, so giving them more control over the agenda isn’t undemocratic.

Giving mayors more of a say in setting the agenda is a good thing. But there’s a reason that we don’t elect municipal dictators. We elect councillors to help shape the agenda, allow for more diverse voices at the table, and ensure that every corner of the city is represented at city hall.

Handing one third of council the power to pass any law they want so long as they have the mayor’s backing is minority rule. In no other democratic institution in Canada do we allow a minority of elected representatives to impose an agenda opposed by a majority of elected officials.

If he finds this new mayoral power system successful, Ford plans to extend these powers to municipalities across the province. Democracy in Toronto and Ottawa isn’t only at stake – Ontarians all across the province have a stake in this fight.

Bill 39 needs a fundamental re-write. Today, mayors all across the province don’t have enough power and influence. Ford’s desire to give them a stronger voice is sensible. But allowing one third of council the ability to hold the cities of Toronto or Ottawa hostage is a major mistake.

Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Duelling ideological media headlines greeted the September 28 release of a report on Ontario public sector employment from the provincial legislature’s Financial Accountability Office.

According to the (somewhat lefty) CBC News: “Ontario needs more public sector workers and might have to raise wages to attract them: FAO.”

According to the (more right-wing) Globe and Mail: “Ontario wage cap bill could save province $9.7-billion, new report shows.”

The province’s only seven-year-old Financial Accountability Office itself has somewhat lefty origins. It was first proposed by NDP leader Andrea Horwath in 2013, as the Liberal minority government Kathleen Wynne inherited from Dalton McGuinty was looking for budget support.

A first Financial Accountability Officer started work in March 2015. The current Officer Peter Weltman (a graduate of the Parliamentary Budget Office in Ottawa) was appointed in May 2018. He has some staff: 18 + Mr. Weltman make up “Our Team” on the FAO website today.

Not exactly accidentally, the report released on September 28, 2022 — “Ontario Public Sector Employment and Compensation : Historical Trends, Projections and Risks” — bumps into contract talks between unions and the provincial government, and a court challenge to the province’s Bill 124 of 2019, which legislated a 1% public sector compensation cap.

For its main part the document offers a current snapshot of a significant chunk of the economy in Canada’s most populous province.

All told the FAO’s “public sector” includes 24.6% of “Total Paid Workers in Ontario in 2021.” The remaining 75.4% are still in the “private sector.”

One-quarter of the work force is no small amount. But this Ontario public sector of 24.6%, includes 3.6% of total paid workers in “Municipal Government” and 2.5% in “Federal Government (in Ontario).” Even the remaining 18.5% of paid workers in the “Ontario Broader Public Sector” are further subdivided.

At the core is 10.3% of total paid workers in the “Ontario Public Sector.”  This group is “financially controlled by the Province.” It is further subdivided into School Boards (4.5%), Hospitals (3.7%), Ontario Ministries and Agencies (1.4%), and Colleges (0.7%).

The Ontario Broader Public Sector includes another 8.2% of paid workers in “Other Provincially Supported Organizations.” They “receive significant funding from the Ontario government but are not considered to be financially controlled by the Province.”

Logically enough, the FAO report concentrates on the Ontario Public Sector that employs 10.3% of the province’s work force and is “financially controlled” by Queen’s Park.

The report ponders the historical data on this sector,  and comes up with a base-case scenario of near-term growth. On this scenario “the FAO costed the impact of Bill 124 and estimated that it will save the Province a cumulative total of $9.7 billion in salaries and wages costs … through to 2026-27.”

At the same time, the report notes three “risks” to this base-case scenario : (1) “Inflation Could Lead to Higher Wage Increases”; (2) “Successful Court Challenge to Bill 124 Could Lead to Higher Spending on Salaries and Wages”; and (3) “Staffing Shortages Could Lead to Reduced Service Levels and Higher Wage Increases.”

It could be argued that the still somewhat murky character of the second Ford Nation government elected this past June 2 will be revealed as it navigates these risks over the near future ahead.

The government that launched Bill 124 in 2019 was open to the criticism that conservative parties in our time, deeply rooted in private sector interests, can never operate effective public sectors, because they are ideologically averse to the paid workers who earn their living this way.

(It could also be said that the only good public services, on this view, are cheap public services.)

On the other hand, the 2022 FAO report on “Ontario Public Sector Employment and Compensation” does lend some support to the case for “moderation” in Ontario public sector pay. The 2021 average annual salary of paid workers in the Ontario private sector, for example, was not much more than $59,000. For the 10.3% Ontario public sector it was somewhat more than $69,000!

(The Other Provincially Supported Organizations in the broader public sector, on the other hand again, are another story — with average annual salary at less than $51,000 in 2021.)

Meanwhile, back at Queen’s Park key current headlines suggest various straws in the wind: “Ontario just increased its minimum wage by 50 cents”; “Big salary increases expected for many Toronto workers next year”; “Ontario CUPE education workers vote 96.5% in favour of strike mandate.”

Whatever else, the latest report of the legislature’s Financial Accountability Office of Ontario does shed some light on the deeper background to all these kinds of  headlines — right, left, and centre.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Ontarians should listen for a giant sucking sound from Queen’s Park.

Now that the election is over and MPPs know that they don’t have to directly answer to voters for another four years, you can bet that Ontario’s political parties will team up once again to funnel even more money from taxpayers’ wallets into party coffers.

For those who didn’t know, Ontario’s political parties are giving themselves millions of dollars four times a year through a process known as the per-vote subsidy. Each party gets a set amount of money based on how many votes they received in the last election with no strings attached. Parties can spend that money on whatever they want, including lawn signs and attack ads during election campaigns.

But earlier this year, Ontario’s political parties did something unprecedented. All four of them took nine months’ worth of quarterly political welfare payments early, so they could spend the money during this spring’s election campaign.

Never before have Ontario’s political parties taken a payday advance from taxpayers. But thanks to legislation the Ford government passed last year, with no quarrels from the opposition, that’s exactly how it played out.

Roughly $10 million was loaned from you, the taxpayer, to Ontario’s political parties to finance their election campaigns.

Yet now that election day has come and gone and the money is spent, Ontario’s political parties are waking up to the fact that they won’t get quarterly payments for the next nine months, having taken the money early.

Without having to face the wrath of voters for another four years and hungry for cash, you can bet dollars to donuts that Ontario’s political parties will team up once again and try to alter the payday advance to make it a forgivable loan and make sure they get taxpayer cash over the next nine months.

Political parties will pretend they desperately need this cash. As former NDP leader Andrea Horwath said, “there has to be a way of funding democracy.”

But democracy isn’t about sweetheart handouts from taxpayer coffers to partisan politicians. In fact, these payments erode democracy by allowing political parties to skip the legwork to connect with everyday voters and earn donations from supporters. And it certainly isn’t democratic to take the same money twice.

Plus, political parties still raise millions from their supporters. In 2020, while the pandemic led to an economic contraction, Ontario’s political parties still managed to raise millions. They raised nearly $10 million combined. That was actually over and above what the parties raised in 2019, which totaled just over $7 million. This fundraising increase kills any narrative that Ontario’s political parties can’t fund their own operations because of declining donations.

If parties are short on cash, they should be turning to their supporters to help finance party operations over the next nine months. Asking Ontario taxpayers to allow them to double dip by taking a payday advance and getting their pay a second time would be unconscionable.

At the federal level, parties don’t get quarterly payments from taxpayers and all of them have been raking in millions from their supporters. In 2021, their fundraising hit an all-time high. If federal parties can manage to keep the lights on from individual, small dollar donations, their provincial counterparts surely can too.

Four years ago, Premier Doug Ford promised to scrap Ontario’s political welfare regime. At the time, Ford declared that he did “not believe the government should be taking money from hard-working taxpayers and giving it to political parties.”

But instead of ending the system, he expanded it. He also arranged for the payday loan Ontario’s political parties were given this spring. Ford certainly can’t claim he’s fighting for taxpayers if he chooses to move ahead with political welfare double dipping.

The political welfare payday loan was even more evidence that Ontario’s political parties cannot be trusted with taxpayer cash. Taxpayers should say no to double dipping. After that, Ontarians should demand that the program be scrapped altogether. It’s time for Ontario taxpayers to get out of the political party welfare business.

Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

The “2021 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review” released this past November 4 at least seemed to make one thing clear.

With the next provincial election only seven months away, the document underlined the evolution of the original “For the People” regime advanced by Premier Ford back in 2018 into the reformed “Working for Workers” Ontario PC government today.

Working for Workers is only one of three main 2021 Outlook policy themes. The other two are “Protecting Our Progress” and “Building Ontario.”

But it is the lead implementing action of Working for Workers — “to increase the general minimum wage to $15 per hour effective January 1, 2022” — that has grabbed headlines.

As it happens, this is something the Wynne Liberals had scheduled for three years ago. And the original Ford For the People regime cancelled the increase in September 2018 (along with freezing the earlier $14 per hour  minimum wage for two years).

As urged by various observers in various ways, the Ford government’s earlier minimum wage policy can only cast doubt on the depth and sincerity of its broader Working for Workers theme in the fall of 2021.

At the same time, many were also surprised when two prominent union leaders showed up in support of Premier Ford’s pre-Outlook announcement of the minimum wage hike, on November 2 — Unifor’s national president Jerry Dias, and the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Smokey Thomas.

CBC News has suggested that this “can only be seen as a big political win for the PCs.”

A somewhat different report in the Globe and Mail urged that even the full slate of Working for Workers actions in the 2021 Ontario Economic Outlook “do not go nearly far enough … It’s like handing out lollipops when people need a three-course meal.”

Still, Jerry Dias and Smokey Thomas sharing a stage with Doug Ford can make even a cynical observer wonder about the current regional political mood.

Moreover, it is not just in Ontario that some conservative politicians are nowadays working to build new connections with workers. This past spring The Independent in the United Kingdom was asking : “The working class is voting Tory. Why?”

The headline went on: “The political world is turning upside down, with Conservatives winning more blue-collar votes and Labour seducing the middle classes.”

Just this past September another Globe and Mail headline advised Canada’s most populous province (with a Union Jack still in the canton of its old imperial-colonial provincial flag) that “Boris Johnson faces dissent in Tory ranks over his embrace of big government.”

Yet despite much apt criticism, the latest opinion polls are showing that Johnson’s worker-friendly Tories still have a slight lead over the Labour Party, with Liberal Democrats and Greens well behind.

Meanwhile, back in North America, the November 2 somewhat surprise election of Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin as Governor of Virginia can also be read as adding weight and heft to Working for Workers in the current Ontario PC lexicon.

In Virginia as in Ontario the working class in the 2020s is in some respects an increasingly rural/small town (and/or exurban/suburban) phenomenon.  (See also small-town Pennsylvania in the new US TV series “American Rust.”)

Ontario finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy alluded to this side of the broader picture when he presented his 2021 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review to the Legislative Assembly.

As reported by the Toronto Star Mr. Bethlenfalvy complained that “Liberals and New Democrats are fixated on ‘downtown activists’ instead of suburban commuters. ‘It is time to get the 413 built.’”

This new superhighway strategy may remind a few much older voters that there was recently a large commemoration of the late widely (and justly) admired Ontario PC premier William Davis, in the provincial capital city.

And the Ford government’s fresh financial emphasis on building more GTA superhighways — 413 and the Bradford Bypass —  points to a 2022 election strategy almost the complete opposite of Brampton Bill Davis’s winning “Stop the Spadina Expressway” campaign of 1971.

All that, however, was 50 years ago. Times have changed, especially with the apparent newfound workers’ profile induced by the global pandemic. And maybe, in a global village where Boris Johnson is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Doug Ford does not seem quite so not-quite-right as Premier of Ontario.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

“Wait! Don’t be fooled. She’s just a regular Malibu Stacy with a stupid, cheap hat. She still embodies all the awful [aspects] she did before.”

—“Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” The Simpsons, season five, episode fourteen

New Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca is promising to bring ranked ballots to provincial politics if his party forms government next spring. But such a reform offers only minuscule improvement at best, threatens to send third parties into electoral oblivion, is premised on a disingenuous rationale (if not an outright lie), and is more about feathering the Liberals’ nest than improving democracy.

At the Ontario Liberals’ annual general meeting this past Sunday, Del Duca promised to change the type of ballot used in elections, as a “first step” to purportedly enhancing the province’s democracy. With ranked ballots, rather than marking an “X” for only their favourite candidate, voters would instead rank the candidates in order of preference. It’s not clear if this proposed change would involve a referendum or simply be ushered in by legislation, but thus far it sounds like the latter.

Del Duca also claimed he would resign if he doesn’t implement the aforementioned ranked ballots during Ontario’s 43rd Parliament, and that Liberals would subsequently form a citizens’ assembly to gauge further democratic changes.

A Liberal party, temporarily banished to the political hinterlands of third-party status, making flowery offers regarding electoral reform.  Where might we have heard this before, dear reader?

To Del Duca’s credit, he is refreshingly honest about which electoral system Liberals prefer, rather than the usual Grit tactic of being coy about such crucial details. And, at least thus far, it sounds like he’s promising to implement electoral reform without delay, rather than stymie the process with a referendum intended to fail, as former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty did 14 years ago. However, if we’re being cynical – or perhaps realistic – there’s still time for Del Duca to acquire cold feet after getting elected and suggest a referendum would be needed after all, just as both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault did in recent years when they realized their reform promises threatened their respective routes to re-election.

But if Del Duca is being surprisingly open about which electoral system he intends to switch Ontario to, he’s not being honest about why.

The Ontario Liberals claim elections that use ranked ballots would foster greater civility and less vitriol – that politics would be characterized by consensus rather than conflict – because candidates would require more than just first-preference votes. In other words, candidates would have to appeal to as many voters as possible, even to those who prefer another candidate/party, to acquire enough second-preference votes. It would no longer be possible to get elected with just 40 percent of the vote, and thus the tone of politics would naturally become more cooperative.

Except for one problem: this claim is largely nonsense.

Admittedly, it’s true that ranked ballots can encourage politicians to tone down the toxicity – but only in non-partisan contests devoid of political parties, such as municipal council elections featuring independent candidates. However, Ontario’s provincial elections are partisan – they involve political parties – and that wouldn’t change with the adoption of ranked ballots.

The suggestion that Ontario’s rival parties would suddenly join hands and engage in a harmonious rendition of Kumbaya just because of ranked ballots is completely without basis. Just look at the Australian House of Representatives, which uses the electoral system Del Duca is proposing for Ontario: ranked ballots and single-member ridings, formally known as “instant-runoff voting.” Politics “Down Under” is arguably more acerbic than here in Canada. In fact, the United Kingdom’s Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System from 1998 specifically noted that Australian “politicians tend to be, if anything, more blunt and outspoken than [their British equivalents]”. Note that Australia adopted this voting system way back in 1918; if 103 years hasn’t been long enough for ranked ballots to bring civility to Australian politics, perhaps it’s time to admit such claims are complete codswallop.

One positive outcome that ranked ballots would actually achieve for Ontario’s elections – oddly unmentioned by Del Duca – is the elimination of strategic voting. Ontarians would be liberated to support their favourite candidate without fear of “splitting the vote,” and no candidate/party would be too minor to vote for.

However, because ranked ballots would be paired with single-member ridings under Del Duca’s proposal, there would be no improvement to the diversity of Ontario’s legislature. In fact, the two largest parties would likely come to dominate even more. Of the 151 seats in Australia’s House of Representatives, two parties won all but six seats in the most recent federal election. That is even less proportional and more skewed than the first-past-the-post system currently used in Canada’s provincial and federal elections.

Instant-runoff voting makes it difficult even for large third parties to get elected in Australia, where the Greens only have one federal Member of Parliament, despite earning 10.4 percent of the vote in 2019. (Under a proportional system, they would have received 16 seats.) Make no mistake: like Ontario’s current voting system, Del Duca’s proposed instant-runoff voting is a “winner-takes-all” system that favours the status quo – and might actually make it worse.

So sure, with ranked ballots you could vote Trillium instead of Tory, or Moderate instead of Liberal, or Communist instead of NDP, or Go Vegan instead of the Greens, without having to worry about “wasting” your vote. But the reality is none of these smaller parties would come close to winning a seat under instant-runoff voting. In fact, if Australia serves as an example, even a larger third party – normally the NDP in Ontario – might struggle to retain official party status at Queen’s Park under such an electoral system.

(Strangely enough, when the British Columbia Liberals and Conservatives conspired to introduce ranked ballots for that province’s 1952 election in an effort to snuff out the rapidly-growing CCF/NDP, it was instead the Grits and Tories who inadvertently became the third parties, pulverized almost out of existence. Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Del Duca.)

Would getting rid of strategic voting really be worth Ontario having a less diverse Legislative Assembly? Do Ontarians really want to cram their four political parties into a voting system even less tolerant of multiple options? How would this possibly lead to better democratic outcomes, as Del Duca claims?

If adding ranked ballots to Ontario’s elections wouldn’t improve civility as the Ontario Liberals attest, and would actually make the Legislative Assembly less reflective of social diversity than it is now, it’s worth asking why Del Duca is pushing for this reform.

There are likely two reasons, in addition to trying to squeeze the Ontario NDP and Greens as mentioned above. First, Del Duca’s reform proposal presents him as an exciting reformist courageously confronting a bully, rather than a dull-as-dishwater technocrat. It’s an opportunistic ploy: last year, Doug Ford undemocratically quashed ranked ballots from Ontario’s municipal elections, so Del Duca hopes to portray Ford as the autocratic villain while presenting himself as the saviour restoring democracy – and extending such reforms to the provincial level. After all, successful politics requires you to define your opponent before they define you.

But the most likely reason is that an electoral system that captures voter preferences – rather than only their favourite option – is bound to favour a large, centrist party. A lot of Conservative, NDP and Green voters would mark the Liberals as their second preference, allowing the Liberals to win more seats than under the current first-past-the-post system.

In other words: this proposal is really about Liberal self-interest.  Plus ça change

Earlier this year, the Ontario Liberals conducted a policy survey called #TakeTheMic, meant to shape the party’s priorities ahead of the 2022 provincial election. According to the responses, adopting a system of proportional representation was more popular than adopting ranked ballots (instant-runoff voting), and yet Del Duca has chosen to ignore this advice, as proportional voting would likely deliver fewer seats to the Liberals.

Del Duca’s ranked ballots proposal is not about reinvigorating Ontario’s democracy. It’s about retaining a winner-takes-all status quo, and possibly further inflating the Liberals at the expense of third parties. It’s about getting back in power at Queen’s Park – and staying there.

Interestingly, during his speech this past weekend, Del Duca proactively attempted to disarm those who would rather see Ontario embrace a proportional voting system.

“Now, there are people who will say that [instant-runoff voting] is not a perfect solution, but the status quo is simply not serving people’s interests, and something needs to change.”

Those people are Ontarians, Mr. Del Duca. The same people who responded to your party’s recent policy survey, who you are now choosing to ignore because their answers didn’t align with your premeditated motives.

Del Duca is right on one thing: something needs to change. But by merely adding ranked ballots to Ontario’s elections, it’s barely a change at all. In fact, if Australia is any example, instant-runoff voting might further erode the province’s democracy.

Adopting ranked ballots might be a half-decent improvement for Toronto’s non-partisan city elections, but not for Ontario’s provincial elections contested by political parties. Del Duca disingenuously insists otherwise, which should make voters question whether they can trust him.

If the Ontario Liberals genuinely want to improve the province’s democracy, they should listen to the Ontarians who responded to their party’s policy survey and opt to champion proportional representation. Otherwise, they’re wasting our time by peddling the electoral reform equivalent of snake oil.

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Cabinet ministers in Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government have insisted throughout the pandemic that when they close schools or businesses they are guided by science and following the evidence.

But they have ignored the evidence when it comes to regulating political advertising.

The government recalled the legislature in June to tighten restraints on pre-election ad spending by so-called “third parties” (advocacy groups other than political parties).

The old law let groups spend up to $600,000 in the six months before the official starting date of the election campaigns. The new law extends the time to spend $600,000 to 12 months prior to an election kickoff.

The government lost a court decision when a judge decided the $600,000 cap over 12 months was an unconstitutional curb on the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Days later the Conservatives deployed the Charter’s rarely used Section 33 — the “notwithstanding clause” — in a bill to overrule the court.

The opposition parties voted against the bill, probably figuring they benefit from more ads that attack Conservatives. But essentially the opposition and the government agree. They all agree the new law will reduce the influence of election ads, and they all think voters are naïve and gullible.

The government house leader in the Legislature, Paul Calandria, compared spending by the PCs’ opponents with American super PACs, the corporate and union political action committees that spend limitless funds supporting or attacking election candidates.

Without tighter limits on third-party spending, Calandria asserted, “a few wealthy elites, corporations and special interest groups… would be allowed to interfere in and control our elections with unlimited money….”

By reversing his government’s court defeat, premier Doug Ford said he’s “protecting democracy.” But from what?

There is no evidence the public needs protection from political ads because the ads don’t work.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks cites U.S. research showing “in state and national elections” there is “barely any relationship between more spending and a bigger victory.” The evidence Brooks cites found that if one candidate ran 1,000 more commercials than an opponent it translated into “a paltry 0.19 per cent” advantage in the results.

The authors of the book “Negative Campaigning,” political scientists Richard R. Lau of Rutgers University and Gerald M. Pomper of Princeton University, reviewed more than 100 studies and experiments conducted during U.S. elections, concluding that “advertising, negative or positive, appears ineffective at increasing turnout or persuading voters.”

After carrying out experiments during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, University of Rhode Island political scientists Liam C. Malloy and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz concluded, “…Negative advertising appears to never be effective in either increasing a candidate’s margin of victory or driving up turnout for the candidate or driving down turnout for the competition.”

Like other paid advertising, people bypass political ads. Commercials, radio spots and print ads for all kinds of products are failing to deliver. A University of Southern California professor, Gerard J. Tellis, analyzed 750 studies on advertising effectiveness published between 1960 and 2008 and found a 10% increase in ad spending led to only a 1% increase in sales.

Updated research shows ad effectiveness continues to descend.

Sales would rise by only 1% if a firm doubled its TV advertising, according to a study published this year by University of Chicago researchers. They focused on 288 popular consumer goods such as Diet Coke and Bounty paper towels, concluding that the return on investment was negative for many products. Companies spent more on commercials than they earned back in additional sales.

Voters don’t need government protection from election advertising. They are protecting themselves. Around the globe, hundreds of millions have downloaded ad blockers. Voters also have natural defence systems against incoming political missiles. In a national poll in 2011 for the Advertising Standards Council of Canada, 57 per cent said most advertising is truthful, but just 30 per cent said the same about political advertising.

When they make policies about Covid-19 — or about political advertising —  politicians should follow the evidence.


Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ (www.vectorresearch.com) and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies, published by Wiley (2012) and Ideas and Innovation for Dummies (Wiley, 2021).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.