Kathleen Wynne sells one public asset to create another

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"What does Kathleen Wynne think you do with a majority?" moped a friend. "What does she have a majority for? Harper knows what to do with one. He even knew what to do with a minority."

When she ran, Wynne seemed committed to new tolls or taxes -- to expand public transit. Then she backtracked, and decided to sell off parts of Hydro One instead. Why would it matter if you sell one public asset to create another? You're just robbing Peter to pay Paul. To understand why, stroll with me down to the newly "revitalized" Union Station on Front Street.

There it stands, solid and stolid, stretching a full block, a dominating public presence. Now look across to the Royal York, higher but shorter, an old railway hotel, privately owned. (I adore those, I've rerouted trips solely to spend a night at the Bessborough in Saskatoon or the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec.) They face each other. This isn't a private-public-partnership (PPP) of the sort touted for Hydro. In this era those are shams, the private always lunches on the public. It's a relationship -- not public bowing and scraping to private. There's respect.

Tony Judt, the late historian, wrote brilliantly on this. He loved the great train stations. He felt they not only served and welcomed travellers but made a statement about the need for a strong public role in restraining the ravages of early capitalism's robber barons; and still do, in our time of raging inequality and the 1 per cent. They represent something.

Hydro is a symbol in this sense peculiar to Ontario, just as the CBC is to Canada. (Institutions have always been central to our nationhood since we lack other binders like a unique language or cuisine.) The Tory premier who created Hydro in 1906 said, "The water power of Niagara should be as free as the air." Like other conservatives such as Teddy Roosevelt, he saw the need for the state to counterbalance raw business impulses. Ontario Hydro and the image of Niagara Falls embedded that necessity in the public mind.

This is what Wynne seems not to realize about her choice to rob Peter to pay Paul. There's a battle on over government's role and she's aiding the anti side since she could've easily paid for transit with raised taxes. A restoration of the 2 per cent of GST that Harper killed would yield more each year than her one-time sale of Hydro One, and still leave its yearly revenues. So it's a failure of (her) nerve if we assume she has pro-government principles, as she claims. You can sense this abdication in her unpersuasive language in New York recently. "So I actually think," she said feebly, "the oversight will be there."

She's covered herself by getting former civil servants and bankers, Ed Clark and Don Drummond, to "advise" her. Both came of age on deficit hysteria and program-slashing. No disrespect and I'm not saying it's just garbage in, garbage out. But you get what you pay for. Drummond in, Drummond out.

There will always be a state and a state role, at least prior to the arrival of the messiah, who I assume is an anarchist and will let the members of society self-regulate. So the question in the interim is simply: what role will the state play and whose interests will it serve: the few, or everybody?

Hydro was a Tory project at a time when public made such sense that even Tories did it routinely. Has that time come again? I think so -- when even people in crazy sectors like hedge funds can see something must be done or this society will go right off (pardon the expression) the rails. One sign of this crisis is terror about raising taxes -- even from a leader who ran on it, to the left of the NDP, and won. Now the NDP has Alberta and about 70 per cent polled nationally take a leftish position. There's also the matter of the young, who are highly social (as in media) and may be more amenable to public solutions in areas like transit.

Kathleen Wynne isn't from the business world and isn't beholden to them. What has got into her -- or drained away?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

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