Monday, 27 May 2013

Meanwhile In Ontario, a PC/NDP Policy Convergence

Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!
Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!              
What could be a more telling sign of a the coming apocalypse than the sight of two political polar opposites coming together in a policy convergence? The image of political cats and dogs - the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats - entering into a truce to fight a common foe is a jarring one. Of course, no such formal pact exists between the two parties which, at least on the basis of party constitutions and policy histories - have little in common. There is no agreement, no stated goal of detente to focus a combined effort on the Liberal government. It is an alliance of happenstance, not concerted cooperation. The convergence is the result of two far extremes which, if followed far enough end up intersecting and aligning on the other side. Two distinct sides of the political spectrum have reached the same conclusion by taking their own political brands to the same common denominator. 

The result: a pair of transit and taxation policies which, when stripped of partisan colours, are largely indistinguishable from one another. Even the rhetoric is striking, with talking points that could comfortably find a home in a cheaply made Ford for Mayor YouTube video. The convergence is demonstrated once again by the common refrain by both parties in their responses the Metrolinx plan for transit funding. Neither party has a policy for expanding the much transit expansion the regional - and especially Toronto - needs over the common decades. While it is temping to claim that both are simply in favour of the status quo, it's untrue. They are, in fact, regressive policies. Shockingly, the ONDP is most guilty. 

The Tory position is familiar and the more expected. PC transport critic Frank Klees trotted out the familiar conservative position decrying government cash-grabs and the pro-tax agenda of Liberals. It's the basic argument that people pay all the taxes they can bear - which, considering the declining rates of taxation federally and provincially, as well as the hold-the-rates policies of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, are somewhat untrue. Taxpayers can be expected to pay for roads, but they can't be expected to pay for transit improvements. The arguments are trite and tiring and not worth repeating in detail.

While various shadow cabinet PCs have trotted before the camera to denounce the 'tax and spend' ways of the McGuinty Wynne Liberals, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has largely taken point for her team. Horwath's rejection of the Metrolinx is less ideologically cold as her PC counterparts, but no less problematic. The leader of the third party told reporters assembled at the legislature that “We’re very, very concerned that any new taxes or tolls on everyday families is going to be quite harmful. And so we don’t support that". This is little more than crass populism, focused largely on middle class families in order to bolster sagging support for her party.

Horwath's stance is troubling, not simply for the policy ramifications (which are dire), but because of the message it sends about government. In aligning herself a tax-grabbing government she is also undercutting what should be central to a supposedly progressive party's platform: the value of public goods, paid for through tax dollars for the benefit of all citizens, not simply the middle class. It undercuts public support for government initiatives which are sorely lacking and, in doing so, aligns herself with the austerity crowd. 

Two of Horwath's demands for budget support are equally populist and bankrupt. First, her stance on HOV is a knee-jerk reaction to new fees. She's now grasping at any revenue tool, even those that are not targeted properly at 'families'. Second, her demand that insurance premiums be cut provides the wrong kind of incentive and runs contrary to the goal of the Big Move plan. This essentially makes it cheaper for drivers to continue driving while undercutting their incentives to switch to another mode of transportation which, of course, does not help to alleviate traffic congestion.

On the rhetorical front, Horwath has taken - almost verbatim - a page from the Rob Ford playbook (as have the PCs). The solution to the revenue problem? Find efficiencies in administration ($50 billion of them over the coming decades) and reverse corporate tax cuts. The wisdom of the corporate tax cuts I'll leave to the mathematicians. Of course, the NDP needn't worry about efficiencies (or wait for them) to fund expansions of home care. Those, like roads, can be worked out within the existing finance scheme.

Where transit riders fit into all of this is unclear. They seem to have been left in the lurch. What's  most troubling is that those very Ontario Families - essentially a proper noun in the discourse - that the NDP purports to defend are likely to be those that continue to be affected by the lethargic pace of transit development. It is with good reason that Metrolinx points out that the costs of doing nothing - in gridlock, lost productivity and, indeed, in travel time - is far greater than the immediate monetary cost of building new transit. More to the point, the plan - a combination of revenue tools - are at least partially equitable in that they spread the burden (although, by ignoring income tax as a revenue tool it omits the most potentially progressive tool available) to both transit riders and drivers alike. Horwarth, it seems, prefers the status quo where the cost of using transit continues to increase year over year - with no increase in service - while the the consolidated revenue fund continues to bear the cost of road infrastructure at a loss. 

This is populist pandering for very short-term gain. Indeed, if one is to believe the polls (a risky proposition these days), there have been no electoral benefits from this course of action. In a desperate attempt to shore up its marginal presence in the Assembly, the NDP has bet on the populist horse and lost. The damage done extends beyond the immediate. Instead of working to build a consensus around public transit by touting the virtues of commonly held public goods - and justifying their costs - the NDP has instead resorted to Ford-style talking points and adopted the conservative stance toward taxation. On transit and taxation there is no light between these two diametrically opposed camps. This policy convergence will not end well. They're laying the foundations for a Hudak premiership, one populist step at a time. 

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