Ontario caught between a wall and a cliff

When you begin spending time looking at politics and public issues, trying to form opinions, you quickly get lured into thinking that politics is important.

When you begin spending time looking at politics and public issues, trying to form opinions, you quickly get lured into thinking that politics is important. That the decisions our decision-makers make actually represent choices we ourselves could make.

These decisions do matter, but by the time they reach the public sphere, the most important ones seem to have already been made. So your input, though publicly courted, in private doesn’t seem to count for much.

For instance, you can help decide if Red Deer keeps its downtown patio year-round. But your opinion on conditions in our public schools, while recorded, will in all likelihood be ignored by the officials who control those conditions.

I found myself lured into following the provincial elections in Ontario. I wanted to see if there were parallels between the Ontario mindset and that of Alberta.

The most significant insight that I have been able to find is that people generally can’t be bothered to invest in the big decisions that will affect their futures. So a minority of people with vested interests in those decisions will.

Less than half of registered voters cast ballots in the last Ontario election. That race put Liberal Dalton McGuinty into the premier’s chair, which was followed by, shall we say, less-than-stellar outcomes.

McGuinty was replaced by Kathleen Wynne, who has had to bear public responsibility for the previous Liberal administration’s spending scandals, a worsening economic climate, and a hard charge from the right from Tory Leader Tim Hudak.

The Ontario campaign features high provincial power rates, serious charges of wasteful spending, rumours of a bloated government payroll, rising provincial debt, along with rising inequality of incomes, limited expectations of a better future for many, leading to a disaffected public.

Seen from a distance, the party platforms allow for branding of the parties themselves. But voters know the realities of being the government in Ontario will force them all to behave much the same.

See any parallels to our situation here?

I thought I did, so I started following the election news. What I’ve seen is that despite the hard work being done on the campaigns, the preponderance of voters appear to be tuning out.

Even given the differences in the economies of Ontario and Alberta, there are reasons why people in both provinces give up on the debate over the public policies that will govern their futures.

For one thing, the challenges facing the provinces are too complex to be resolved at the ballot box. For another, anyone can see that the solutions being offered either can’t work or won’t be followed after election day in any event.

There’s just no way a government can tackle a provincial debt of 40 per cent of GDP and create a million jobs in a stagnant economy by reducing the public payroll by 100,000 positions — as Hudak is proposing.

Likewise, voters know you can’t dig yourself out of a problem by doing more of the same things that got you into trouble in the first place, which is what the Liberals are essentially promising.

Ontario represents Canada’s version of the fiscal cliff.

Columnist Gwyn Morgan points out that California is considered the poster child of how public debt can ruin a society’s prospects. But Ontario’s debt is 70 per cent larger in real terms. Annual interest payments on Ontario’s debt are rising, soon to be on the scale of Alberta’s investments in our Heritage Fund.

And nobody but the NDP is talking tax hikes?

When almost a third of Ontario’s unemployed have given up even looking for a job, whose campaign platform can gain majority support?

I believe this is where democracy hits a wall. People know the problems facing their province are more complex than they can describe. People know existing conditions, not party platforms, will dictate policy in the future. And they don’t see how their input can make a difference.

So the big decisions have already been made — by bond-holders, lobby groups and organizations that can swing just enough voters in just enough ridings to assure their influence.

From here, I don’t see any simple solutions for Ontario.

But for Alberta, I see a warning that people need to stay on top of their government, to keep the big problems manageable, and to find a consensus that we can force our leaders to follow.

If you don’t believe politics is important, you can get to a point where your vote really and truly doesn’t matter.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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