Sunday, September 20, 2009

Maybe That's What the Problem Is

Ontarians may just not object to McGuinty's culture of entitlement

Reporting on the aftermath of the Ontario Liberal party's recent by-election victory in St Paul's, Toronto Star columnist Royson James has phrased the matter rather succinctly.

"Either the St Paul's riding is incurably Liberal, as defeated Conservative Sue-Ann Levy says, or voters are content with life in Ontari-ari-ari-o," he muses.

And therein could lay the problem -- that Ontario voters have simply become accustomed to scandal to the point where they don't even blink when a seemingly unending flood of it bursts forth.

And indeed these scandals do seem unending.

Yet another contract tendering scandal has emerged, this time in London hospitals. According to accounts, up to $3 million in contracts were awarded untendered, at a cost to taxpayers of $1500 per day. According to these accounts, these contracts were issued to a single consultant.

To make matters worse, the contract was signed by a hospital administrator who lacked the authority to make the deal. The consultant in question was a former employee of the hospital.

"Giving an un-tendered contract to a former colleague — at first glance, it doesn't look very good," said Progressive Conservative party deputy leader Christine Elliott. "We need a full investigation."

"“We have had this culture fostered over six years by the [Dalton] McGuinty liberals. It’s ok not to tender a contract. It’s ok — nod, nod, wink, wink — to give contracts to your insider friends,” said provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

Horwath echoed the words of Tory leader Tim Hudak in predicting yet more scandals to come.

“It’s really the tip of the iceberg,” she insisted. “There are all sorts of insider sweetheart deals. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

"It’s outrageous. It’s just another example of the lack of oversight ... and insiders getting sweetheart deals," Horwath added.

Observers of Ontarian politics know by now that this episode isn't an isolated incident. It follows scandals at eHealth, the Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation, and the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, as well as complaints that Dalton McGuinty misled Queen's Park when he announced that he had paid a retainer to an investigating firm when no such retainer had been paid.

To date, Hudak and Horwath's prediction has unfolded as foretold. There's little reason to think it's going to stop any time soon.

So, if Royson James' assessment rings true, and Ontarian voters remain perfectly comfortable with Dalton McGuinty's government, it's pretty clear that there are very deep problems in Ontario.

As some Canadians may recall, the Liberal party vote in the 2004 federal election remained strong in Ontario despite widespread knowledge of the sponsorship scandal. While the specific scope of the scandal was not yet known to voters -- but would be in 2006 -- the nuts and bolts of the scandal itself were widely known.

Yet Ontario returned 75 Liberals to Ottawa. In 2006, even in the wake of full public knowledge of the scandal -- knowledge that was obtained over the objections of the Liberal party -- Ontario elected 54 Liberals, a majority of the seats in that province.

It may not be unfair to theorize that Ontarian voters are unusually tolerant of scandal. It seems that the politics of self-service -- the ugly handmaiden of what Barry Cooper would describe as the politics of public virtue -- may have taken root deeply in Ontario.

To make matters more disturbing yet, the politics of public virtue may have become deeply distorted in Ontario. One would expect that the politics of public virtue would have room within its enclave for honest, accountable, and responsible government -- government that doesn't allow its various agencies to run wild spending public monies, and doesn't mislead the legislature and cancel independent investigations.

Yet even amidst all of these shenanigans in Ontario, the Liberals were able to walk away with what many considered to be a key by-election in Toronto. If voters in St Paul's had taken a thoughtful appraisal of their government, one would have at least expected a closer race.

It's possible that this assessment may not be entirely fair. Dr Eric Hoskins may well have won the riding based on the strength of his own candidacy. But based on evaluations of the matter by Chris Selley, that doesn't seem entirely likely.

Perhaps voters in "Ontari-ari-ari-o" are simply very comfortable with millions of taxpayers dollars being handed out by people with no authority to do so without so much as a contract tendering.

Perhaps this is more exclusive to voters in St Paul's.

One way or the other, the matter bodes very poorly for Ontarian politics. Then again, perhaps Ontarians will surprise their fellow Canadians by throwing the derelict McGuinty government out in 2011.


  1. Ontario is where the whole notion of the embedded state dispensing grace and favours, and where rights were replaced by entitlements, took root, coupled with an on-going attempt to bribe their Laurentian counterpart, Québec, as earnestly and often as possible, as Barry Cooper pointed out so well in "It's The Regime, Stupid".

    Truly this is an insidious meme, for it leads otherwise sensible people to decide (foolishly) that the game is about manipulating the state to your own ends rather than simply having it stay out of your affairs and out of your business, as many Westerners would have it be.

    But there's one other factor at play here: in general, Ontario votes Liberal when the Federal Government is Conservative, and vice-versa. It's not a rule, just an observed datum. Sad to say, but McGuinty's probably quite safe as long as Harper or his successors are in Ottawa. (Remember, these are the same voters who simultaneously gave Mike Harris his two majorities and Jean Chrétien practically every seat in the province more than once, or who elected David Peterson & Bob Rae whilst Brian Mulroney was P.M. ... and don't get me started on Robarts and Davis in Ontario with Pearson and Trudeau on the Hill.)

    Now, also to be fair, running an obviously solid reform-minded ex-Toronto Sun writer conservative in St. Paul's wasn't a great idea: this riding, when in the hands of the Ontario PCs, was on the Deep Red side of the Red Tory part of those caucuses — and the downtown ridings in Toronto weren't Harris strongholds, either. In other words, not a natural fit in any event. A better test will come in the ridings on the outer edge of the 416 and their corresponding bordering 905 ridings, where the people who pay for Big Government but get little back from it live. We'll see in 2011 if Hudak and his brain trust can get that one right.

    But never forget, even Mike Harris didn't dismantle the culture of entitlement. His governments merely shifted who, in Ontario, was entitled.

  2. In Derailed, however, Cooper marks the development of bad government via the politics of public virtue, and he draws a concluson that may be somewhat surprising.

    Cooper identified John Diefenbaker's Conservative government (or, rather, Progressive Conservative government) as the first government in Canadian history that established social justice as one of its fundamental principles.

    Diefenbaker was the first Prime Minister to govern according to the politics of public virtue, and Cooper credits Dief with setting the table for bad government.

    The emergence of consistently bad government, Cooper theorizes, is, like the emergence of consistently good government, an evolutionary process.

    Cooper credits Dief's government as the moment in which the political culture that reached its nadir in the Sponsorship Scandal emerged from the primordial ooze.

    The problems that McGuinty has been experiencing aren't, by any means, restricted only to Liberal, liberal, or progressive government. Rather, they will become present anywhere where the political culture justifies the material greed of well-connected individuals.

    In the case of the Sponsorship Scandal, it was justified within cabinet meetings by the argument that the Liberal party was best-poised to fight separatism. It was a self-serving justification, but it was based on real public virtue -- the fight against separatism.

    As for Ontario's tendency to elect Liberal governments when the Conservatives are in power and vice versa, it's not uncommon. BC and the maritime provinces tend to do the same.


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