The Ontario Liberal Party is in for months and years of soul-searching. The big question it will have to answer before attempting a comeback: How did it all go so wrong? How did a party that won commanding majorities in 2003 and 2007 end up winning more narrowly in 2011 and 2014 before finally collapsing in 2018?
One way to answer that question is to look at the party’s successes and failures on matters of policy. Some Liberal moves, like full-day kindergarten and the Greenbelt, remain broadly popular. Others have been so damaging to the party that they’ve wound up putting it in its current state of purgatory.
TVO.org spoke with experts in several fields to assess what the Liberals got right over their 15 years in power — and what they got wrong.
The closure of Ontario’s coal plants represents the biggest single-source emissions reduction in the province’s history. The five coal plants had been responsible for 25 per cent of the province’s electricity generation — when the Liberal government shut them down, it reduced the province’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions by roughly 28 megatons.
“By closing coal plants, they were taking a big risk,” says Gord Miller, who served as the province’s environmental commissioner from 2000 to 2015. “People were saying, ‘You're going to destabilize the electrical generation system because you won't be able to match the peaks.’ It was a bold move.”
The last plant, in Thunder Bay, ceased operation in 2014. The Liberals invested in renewable energy, bolstered the role of nuclear and hydro, and built gas plants to make up for the energy shortfall.
Miller credits the cap-and-trade program — which the PCs have promised to scrap — with changing the face of business in the province and putting a price on pollution.
“For the first time in Ontario, emitters — large emitters — had to be conscious of that because it was costing them something,” says Miller.
Miller says, though, that the Liberals failed to make the kind of investments in infrastructure that would have helped protect the province from the effects of extreme weather events, which are on the rise. The government hasn’t even tackled the repair backlog, let alone completed the upgrades that would help prepare communities for the storms and floods associated with climate change.
“They dropped the ball on that,” says Miller. “They talked a bit about it but never put in any serious policy on climate-change adaptation.”
Scotiabank’s chief economist, Jean-François Perrault, says the Liberals’ long-term infrastructure plan — particularly its policies relating to transit in the Golden Horseshoe — had a significant and positive effect on the province’s economy. “The state of infrastructure in this part of the country has been … I wouldn’t say world class,” Perrault says. “It leads to traffic; it leads to suboptimal use of public transit; it creates bottlenecks of various sorts in supply chains.” Better transportation infrastructure not only improves the flow of goods, he says, but also makes it easier for people to commute. “That is even more important in a world where home prices have reached the level that they have,” he adds.
Perrault does, though, raise questions about the Liberal government’s move to tighten rent control. He sees the lack of affordable housing as the greatest threat to economic growth in the province — and from his perspective, rent control makes the problem worse. “Even though I understand the political appeal, rent control essentially reduces the incentives for developers to build rental units. So that measure, to our mind, runs the risk of exacerbating supply issues in the GTA.”
Annie Kidder, of the advocacy group People for Education, says that the best thing the Liberals did on the education file was simply to take it seriously. “Before they were elected, there was a time of polarization, of cuts, of a lot of divisiveness within public education,” she says. The investments the Liberals made and the effort they put into consulting with multiple stakeholders on education policy, Kidder argues, “made a substantial difference in the education system and the overall success of kids.” She notes that over the past 15 years, high-school graduation rates have increased, and reading, writing, and math scores have improved.
Nevertheless, Kidder says, the Liberals sometimes let their political instincts trump sound policy-making. For example, their decision to pour money into reducing class sizes might have been a political winner, but it turned out not to be the most effective way to improve educational outcomes. Kidder also says the Liberals were wrong to focus so heavily on standardized test scores. The danger of putting too many resources into standardized testing, she says, is that “it squeezes out other vital aspects of education, and it doesn’t necessarily provide that broad education — the kind of skills and competencies that kids need for long-term success.”
Jatin Nathwani, of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, gives the Liberals high marks for shutting down the coal plants and for ensuring that the province has a diverse mix of relatively low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro, natural gas, wind, solar, and bioenergy. “The dividends of a low-carbon electricity mix are yet to be realized, but the decisions of the government will have positive benefits for Ontario in the long term,” he writes in an email. Nathwani also applauds the government for modernizing the electricity grid, including through the installation of controversial “smart meters.” Nathwani says that while the smart meters have been heavily criticized, they represent a first step toward a smarter grid that can provide electricity more efficiently, accommodate new technologies such as electric cars, and allow people to produce and distribute energy services rather than passively consume them.
Still, Nathwani notes that the Liberals didn’t get everything right, pointing to the expensive cancellation of the gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville and the botched execution of the Green Energy Act. Nathwani says that while the act was drafted with the best intentions, it turned into “a costly blunder” — the law’s negative elements overshadowed its positive ones, creating a backlash against renewable energy.
When it comes to supporting Ontarians’ mental health, Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, says the best thing the Liberals did was set up the Mental Health and Addictions Leadership Advisory Council. However, they waited until the end of their time in office to accept the advice it provided, so many of its suggestions have not been implemented. While the Liberals did make some notable investments in autism services and funding for people with intellectual disabilities, McKenzie says, spending on mental health in Ontario accounts for only about 6.5 per cent of all health funding (the Mental Health Commission of Canada says it should be closer to 9 or 10 per cent). “Because of that, at the end of the Liberal government, mental-health services are significantly underfunded in Ontario, and people are suffering — some would say people are dying — as a consequence,” he says.
McKenzie says increasing access to free medication, including through OHIP+, will probably be the Liberals’ most significant health-care legacy. He also applauds the government’s attempts to reduce unnecessary hospital stays and rein in doctors’ salaries. However, McKenzie says, it’s not clear that the time and effort the Liberals put into reorganizing the health-care system have led to any improvements in health outcomes. “The biggest problem you have in Ontario [health care] is equity,” he says. “You need equity of access to services whether you’re in a rural area or whether you are from a diverse community or whether you are poor. You need not only equitable access, but equitable outcomes. That is the big problem in Ontario. And it’s not clear that reorganizing services gets you any closer to that.”
When the Liberals came into office, Isadore Day was just starting out in band politics as a new council member for Serpent River First Nation, south of Elliot Lake. Now Ontario Regional Chief, Day reflects on the progress that has been made since then: “We’re now part owners of Hydro One, we’ve eliminated delivery charges for First Nations across Ontario, and recognized that jurisdiction on child welfare is a critical issue.” He adds that, “should we have had to work with a PC government, things wouldn’t have looked the way they do today.”
But many issues between the provincial government and Indigenous communities remain unaddressed, Day says. He argues that resource-revenue sharing — which made headlines this year when the Liberals announced deals with First Nations across Ontario to share revenue from forestry and mining — doesn’t go far enough. “It’s not just pulling rocks and trees out of the ground and extracting minerals and making lumber, taking it to market and paying royalties or dividends for it,” says Day. “It’s about the land.” He says First Nations have not been allowed to participate meaningfully in decisions about water commoditization, and notes a recent court case over the Robinson-Huron and Robinson Superior Treaties, in which 21 Ontario First Nations are suing the provincial and federal governments over annuity payments that haven’t changed since 1874.
“There is no process right now that allows us any recognized recourse or way to deal with disputes between what could — and should — be a government-to-government relationship,” Day says.
Metcalf Foundation fellow John Stapleton has acted as an adviser to the province on community and social-services policy for nearly three decades. He says the Liberal government made strides in social assistance and housing policy — notably, through its 2017 decision to raise exemption limits for tax-free savings accounts and registered retirement savings plan assets for those on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program. “It’s a brave thing, and no one else in Canada’s done it,” says Stapleton. The 2018 budget also proposed a number of measures that would improve the ODSP and OW, “but so many of them were at the last minute,” he says — and the incoming Tory government could chop them.
There were also missed opportunities, Stapleton says. “If you look at the bellwether social-assistance rate that Mike Harris dropped by 60 per cent in 1995, they had a chance to address that, and they just didn’t do it … they allowed it to erode even more.”
Toronto lawyer Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, applauds the Liberals’ moves to address precarious work, raise the minimum wage, and introduce new employment standards. “But the enforcement mechanism itself hasn’t changed,” she says. “It still requires workers to file a complaint when a right has been violated. That’s never been effective, because people in vulnerable situations are less likely to file a complaint.”
Recent initiatives intended to address systemic racism, such as the Anti-Racism Directorate and race-based data collection in the public sector, have yet to produce results. “They haven’t even started collecting the data yet,” says Go. “They were only into the first year of the Anti-Racism Strategy when the election was called. We certainly hope the new government will continue this work.”
Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, says the Liberal government deserves credit for having made substantial province-wide investments in infrastructure following a dearth of such investments in previous years. “I think it put infrastructure back on the agenda,” he says, noting that the government created the standalone Ministry of Infrastructure as part of its commitment to the file.
Where the Liberals stumbled, Siemiatycki argues, was on energy infrastructure. He cites their widely criticized decision to move two gas plants out of Mississauga and Oakville, the problems associated with the Green Energy Act, and the move to sell off part of Hydro One, which has permanently reduced government revenue and public control over the provincial energy system. “Energy has really been a consistent area where this government ... has struggled to combine policy with implementation,” he says.
He also identifies the Scarborough subway extension as a major mistake due to its cost and the relatively small number of riders it will serve. “I think it’s really highlighted how political the decision making [on infrastructure] is in this region and in this province,” Siemiatycki says.
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