According to Dalton McGuinty, we shouldn’t blame him for breaking election promises; we should give him credit for his grand ambition. “If I stand guilty of anything, it’s being too ambitious for Ontarians,” he said last week. “I’d rather be accused of that than to be someone who sides with the cynics who say that there’s nothing that we can doâe¦ I don’t side with those people. But I side with those who say that we can and we will.”
Of course, none of his broken promises are really his fault. “I am not for an instant denying that I made a promise and I broke it, but I’m also asking people to take a look at the circumstances that led to that. I don’t think they really understand that the choices we were faced with were to make dramatic cuts, and I mean dramatic cuts to public services âe¦ If you shut down ten hospitals, it only saves you $1 billion. We hired 1,100 new teachers in September, but if we were to fire 16,500, that only saves you a billion dollars. Kick 30,000 of our parents and grandparents out of our nursing homes only saves you $1 billion. Those were the choices we were faced with.”
Creating a straw man is one of the slipperiest of debating techniques, but it takes a special skill to create two of them in the same argument. None of McGuinty’s critics (on either end of the political spectrum) is arguing that “there is nothing we can do.” They are merely questioning what McGuinty has chosen to do. Likewise, I haven’t heard anyone (even Jim Flaherty) arguing for shutting down ten hospitals, firing 16,500 teachers, or kicking 30,000 people out of nursing homes. McGuinty just pulled those hypothetical policies out of the air to suggest that they were the only alternative to the actions that he did take. It’s easier to contrast your policies with something that you make up than with what the other parties are really proposing.
An honest political debate would require McGuinty to admit that he was fully aware that the province was facing a significant structural deficit in excess of five billion dollars. He knew that restoring some of the cuts to health care would require more revenue. He was equally aware that many of his promises, such as freezing hydro rates and phasing out coal fired power generation, were significantly more expensive than he was suggesting.
Just last week, Energy Minister Dwight Duncan admitted, that “we were wrong” to promise to freeze rates without acknowledging the cost of such a move, while McGuinty called the promise “completely unsustainable.” McGuinty and the Liberals simply chose to ignore these facts during the provincial election campaign. He made promises that he knew couldn’t be kept, because he was determined to avoid losing a second election.
In many cases, the broken promises don’t even have much to do with money. For example, the promise to freeze development on the Oak Ridges Moraine had an asterisk attached to it. Only development that hadn’t been previously approved would be stopped. Given that much of the area was already in the grasp of developers, the pace of bulldozer traffic has continued without interruption.
Similarly, a moratorium on school closures applied only to schools where closure had not been already announced. And, a promise to freeze tolls on Highway 407 turns out to have been impossible to keep, given the generous wording of the contract. And, much as we can curse the Tories for their decision to sell the highway on the cheap and guarantee huge profits for the buyer, the Liberals had access to the contract before the election. They knew exactly what could and could not be done.
Less than a year into the Liberals’ mandate, there are already signs that they are stuck with wearing the “promise breaker” label. Even Paul Martin felt the need to distance himself from his provincial cousins’ record during the federal election campaign. “I think the people of Ontario know that these are two different governments,” said Martin. He added that “it’s not enough to say how you’re going to be able to pay for them under the best of circumstances. You’ve got to say how you’re going to pay for them under very differing circumstances. If I come to you and ask you to vote for me because I’m going to do certain things, and I don’t do them, then I have broken faith. And I am not personally going to break faith.”
Yet, during the provincial election campaign, McGuinty stuck to a script that was remarkably similar to Martin’s, insisting that every one of his promises was affordable and feasible. He told people that he had deliberately avoided making promises that were not deliverable. “If I could, I’d throw in a pony and a steak dinner” for every person in Ontario, he cracked during the leaders’ debate, attempting to demonstrate not only his apparent sincerity, but a previously hidden sense of humour. Unfortunately, in their desperation to put an end to the policies of the Conservatives, voters chose to believe him.