Progressive public policy in the Ontario election

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We will probably be parsing who won Tuesday's leaders' debate until provincial election day. But thank Ford, it looks like progressives have a good shot at winning, one way or another.

Hudak has lost momentum, and it certainly appears that the Liberals, alone or with the NDP, will form the next government and the NDP will likely double its seat count.

But as we head to the polls, the irony is that whenever lefties gather these days, someone asks whether it's the NDP or the Liberals who are the most progressive party running in this election.

The NDP has a plethora of good policies -- transit funding and a small corporate tax hike are two examples. And the party certainly has an armload of wonderful, committed people trying their best to do what Jack has asked of all of us: to change this sorry world of ours.

But like many of my fellow social change advocates, I can't help but notice that the party's platform fails to congeal into a convincing forward vision that takes the province farther than the next paycheque.

It is lovely to see a woman at the top, but Andrea Horwath has chosen old-school populism instead of leadership on the tough issues. In particular, she has consistently opted to position the party with the Hudak Conservatives as a safe haven for tax-trashing and the popular but reactionary anti-green resistance.

Horwath selected the anti-HST fight as her hallmark issue from the start, and this rang alarm bells. The Liberals had set up targeted rebates for the most vulnerable when they implemented the unpopular new tax, and respected, poverty-aware economists like Hugh Mackenzie affirmed these would indeed protect low-income earners. She knew that, but couldn't resist the vote appeal.

Don't get me wrong. The HST is not a pretty thing for anyone. But neither are property taxes or vehicle registration taxes or gas taxes or any taxes, frankly. But taxes do add value to our lives, and after 30 years of neo-con attacks, we desperately need leaders who can raise citizen consciousness about all we get in return for forking over our hard-earned dollars.

Horwath won't go there. And unfortunately, her anti-HST campaign only set the stage for the party's larger green retreat.

The NDP's promise to eliminate the HST on hydro and home heating bills along with a reduction on gas is the best known of its anti-green vote-grabs. Not such a big price for a party committed to halting nuclear and funding public transit, you may say.

But the cost of these rebates would remove hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on green retrofits for those with low incomes or targeted to those many who really need assistance. Most importantly, this kind of thinking shrinks away from helping us see the reality of the dangerous time we live in.

The environmental issues we face demand that we make changes in how we live. The NDP used to stand for that.

We are at the end of an era. We need incentives to adjust our habits and thinking to the harsh realities we face. The denial approach is a giant step back from progressive public policy.

But it's the less well-known NDP planks that drive deeper holes in professed green economy goals. Calling for hydro to be re-centralized is like saying amalgamation will save us all money. No, but it would halt energy innovation.

Saying you support green energy but only if it's publicly funded means in practice stopping the renewable industry in its tracks.

A publicly circulated letter to Horwath from Rick Smith of Environmental Defence last July says, "Curtailing any further private investment in renewable energy development will kill all momentum for this nascent industry. While I welcome your pledge on nuclear energy, it is difficult to see how it is achievable given the constraints you suggest."

And the green gaffes go on. Enviros are justifiably livid that to win votes in the north, Horwath is calling for the repeal of the boreal-protecting Far North Act and the Endangered Species Act. Ouch.

Meanwhile, Dalton McGuinty's government, though far from ideal in so many ways -- take his continuing commitment to nuclear energy, for example -- has bravely chosen the tougher electoral road of staring down the anti-tax movement and setting a surprisingly pro-innovation, pro-social course.

In the face of an unending era of severe budget constraints, the near-collapse of old-school manufacturing and a global financial meltdown, the province has upped its game in public education, community health, children's mental health, child poverty reduction and green energy.

McGuinty's government has embraced and delivered on a consistent, long-term vision that positions Ontario in the world as it really is -- deep in a period of major breakdown and transformation.

In that context, government-supported innovation has worked to make this a more resilient province. As McGuinty says, "It isn't all sunshine and apple pie." But the Green Energy Act has positioned Ontario as a continental green economy leader, and as a result factories are opening, not just closing down, as they are in so many other places. The jobs lost during the recession have been replaced.

That's pretty good, considering that we're part of a global matrix that is busy falling apart on so many very large fronts all at the same time.

In this election, the irony is that one relatively progressive party is running on a platform of stability and staying the course while it actually promotes a platform of positive change. Meanwhile, the other relatively progressive political party is supposedly running on a platform of change but is actually wooing voters on the basis of resistance to the changes being thrust upon us by forces far beyond anyone's control.

We are part of the matrix. That is not a choice. That just is.

For good reason, most of us are more comfortable with the familiar, and familiarity is not happening. We do face the unknown, but that doesn't mean we want to see it. This is a psychological dilemma. We want the good old days when you could tell who was who by the colour of their signs. But those days don't look like they're coming back.

So now is the time to get practical. If you're heading to the polls in downtown Toronto, feel free to indulge in an orange crush. In most of the rest of the GTA, where the Tories are hoping to extend their reach, a vote for the NDP is likely to help Hudak, so hold your head high and give McGuinty a thumbs-up instead.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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