McGuinty’s Teflon-coated broken promises

McGuinty’s Teflon-coated broken promises

Everybody loves a horse race, especially one with a photo finish, and that’s what many are predicting in Ontario’s election: a too-close-to-call campaign that will result in a minority government. This is everyone’s preferred scenario because it is the stuff of drama and tension—but right now it is all wishful thinking. Much of it is based on the belief that Dalton McGuinty’s broken promises from the 2003 campaign will come back to haunt him on election day. But McGuinty is more immune to attack than most give him credit for.

Consider his two major broken promises, which have been chronicled ad nauseam in the papers these past few days.

He promised to shut down the coal-fired power plants, then didn’t. When he first broke that promise, it led to an avalanche of stories about the screwed-up mess that is Ontario’s electricity system. That avalanche essentially hasn’t stopped, and Ontarians are now well aware of the problem. Ontarians have been threatened with rotating brownouts so often in recent years, they are quietly thanking the coal-fired plants for keeping the lights on. When McGuinty says he had no choice, he’s believable.

He promised not to raise taxes, then imposed the health premium. McGuinty in fact handled this issue about as deftly as any politician could. (David Miller, are you listening?) He imposed the tax quickly, blaming the previous government. He admitted that he was breaking a promise, which earns him points for honesty. Then he took his lumps for three years. Now that the province’s budget is in surplus, John Tory promises to repeal the tax increase and pump more money into social programs, while McGuinty says he won’t repeal the tax and is promising new programs like full-day kindergarten. In other words: John Tory is promising to do more with less, which is a fantasy, while McGuinty is promising to do more with more, which is far more realistic.

The common thread in both situations is that McGuinty may be a promise-breaker, but he’s not a liar, which would be a far more deadly political sin. He didn’t lie about the coal-fired plants; he just didn’t appreciate just how tenuous the province’s power supply had become. And he didn’t lie when he promised not to raise taxes; the previous government was running a hidden deficit. This all makes him look naïve as a politician, which is why he polls poorly on the issue of leadership. But none of these broken promises has yet proven to be the kind of political issue that could mortally wound his campaign, which is why his party stands at 40% in the polls, nearly enough support to form a majority.

In the first week on the hustings, both Tory and NDP leader Howard Hampton have been hammering away at McGuinty as a promise-breaker. They will keep hammering away, because they’ve got to pierce that Teflon coating of his. If they can’t, this campaign may prove far less dramatic than we’d like to expect.