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Left-right shifts between Liberals and NDP mark outset of Ontario election

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The incumbent Liberal Party premier of Canada's largest province launched her election campaign last week by tacking to the left. In a pre-election budget, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced she would create a public pension plan in Ontario, spend lots of money to improve public transit, and nudge up the income tax paid by the wealthiest people in the province by a few hundred dollars a year. New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath decided she would not support the budget of Wynne's minority government.

The pension move is in response to the stubborn refusal of the Conservative Party government in Ottawa to increase Canada Pension Plan benefit payments. It calls the pension plan that most Canadians cherish and want to see improved just another, damned 'payroll tax'. Harper says Canadians concerned about pensions have only themselves to blame--they don't save enough money for retirement.

A big part of Wynne's strategy for the June 12 election is to attack the right wing record of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and posit herself as the progressive alternative to Harper and Tim Hudak, the Ontario Conservatives’ flag bearer. Hudak is a scary throwback to the unlamented (by anyone with an ounce of social conscience) former premier Mike Harris. The Harris reincarnation says he wants to cut 100,000 public service jobs in the province and slash "gold-plated" pensions of public service workers. All in the name of freeing up money for "kids with special needs" and other hard-pressed citizens. Except Hudak wants to cut the jobs of teachers who, among other tasks, look after kids with special needs. Hmmm.

The tack to the left by Wynne and the Liberals is for show. Premier Wynne will hold the province's miserly minimum wage to $11 per hour. She promises to cut the benefits and pensions of public sector workers. Her transit promises are poorly conceived, including a multi-billion dollar 'relief' subway line in Toronto that some experts say would be a foolish waste of time and resources. Her government is dodging its responsibility for reckless and possibly criminal conduct that cost the public treasury more than one billion dollars when her predecessor abruptly cancelled plans to build two gas-fired electricity stations in the Toronto region.

Toronto is sinking further into the grip of an affordable housing crisis, traffic gridlock and more air pollution hazard days that are also arriving earlier each year. Decades of delay in expanding public transit are coming home to roost. Its regional train network, GO, is a prime candidate for improving transit but experts still can't agree on how to expand it and it has never been modernized to replace its diesel powered-locomotives by electrification. Last December's ice storm revealed that the city's very life-support systems are under threat from changing climate conditions in a warming world.

According to Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin, the Liberal election platform looks positively left wing compared to the right wing populism that New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath has decided to embrace. The left wing writer calls her campaign a "travesty".

Salutin begins his column on May 9: "Andrea Horwath has led Canada's NDP into a new era. They've floundered over an absence of clear principles for a long time...Horwath marks the change. She's a right-wing populist, full out."

Union leaders in the province are sharply divided over the election call. Many, including the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Sid Ryan, wanted the NDP to support Wynne’s budget and avoid an election at this time. The head of the public service union whose members would lose benefits and pension income from the proposed budget are less convinced.

Early in the campaign, Horwath has announced two programs totaling $1 billion to subsidize companies that make investments in the province. It's an attempt to staunch a string of factory closings in Ontario that has seen thousands of jobs disappear. The latest factory closing was yesterday--Unilever is closing a food processing factory and moving production to a plant in Missouri.

It's all part of what Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom calls the "second stage of globalization" following the free trade agreements signed by Conservative and Liberal government in Ottawa during the 1980s and 1990s. He writes on May 9, "In order to radically reduce costs, multinationals are centralizing all North American production in a handful of large plants. Not surprisingly, they are choosing to situate these large plants in the U.S. rather than Canada."

Walkom says that all three major parties are playing versions of the same game--entice factory investment by offering financial and other incentives.

"What are the jobs of the future? If the recent past is any indication, they will fall into two categories.

"A small number of lucky people will have highly paid jobs in areas like speculative finance. A large number of less lucky people -- the so-called precariat -- will be left to depend on low-wage, part-time and short-term work."

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