Tonight, the three major parties in Ontario will debate one another in an attempt to persuade voters that their parties should form the next provincial government.
The two leading campaigns are a case study in how politics in Ontario have developed. The choice offered is one side which suggests that government is the key player for "good" in Ontario, while the other side suggest that the markets are the key to making Ontario a better place to live. In many ways, the Ontario election debate is a case study in Cardus's assertion that "the coinage of our contemporary debate is the left or the right—what governments should do and what they shouldn't do." This debate will show very clearly how "we naturally default to fewer and fewer institutions to solve the problems of the day. Today our default is toward the government or the markets."
But it's not enough to lament the poverty of our social dialogue. People still need to vote, and if they're looking for ways to evaluate their options, we can't simply point out which party is defaulting to which pole. We need to evaluate how their defaults are embodied, and evaluate them on those terms.
Let's start where all politicians start: business, jobs, and the economy.
There can be no doubt that (despite trying to do too much marketing and too little math) this is where the PCs are strongest. Their platform is not simply a matter of getting government out. If you look closely at their platform they have a fairly robust position on the role of government. Their approach is aimed at using government policy to shape an environment which is conducive to commerce, and the development of a strong workforce. Sometimes that means getting government out—as in their promise to eliminate subsidies to business—but sometimes—as in their hope to cut corporate taxes, or entering into partnerships with other provinces, or even their apprenticeship strategy—the idea is to use appropriate government action to create an enabling environment for business to do the work they do best. The Liberal platform here has government entering space that should normally be left to the competitive market environment. The creation of a 2.5-billion-dollar corporate grant fund is the most egregious example government entering a sphere in which its competence leaves much to be desired.
But, while business regulations affect massive areas of people's lives, they are not where most people see government. People see government in places like schools, hospitals, in public safety agencies, and they hear (even if they close their eyes to the people that need them) how government provides service to the unemployed, the disabled, the old, and the poor.
And it's on these issues that the PCs—as so many conservative parties in Canada and around the world do—find their social flank totally exposed. Despite claims to red-circle certain sectors of public sector from cuts, the limits they want to impose on public service writ large—even if they are necessary to maintain credit ratings—portray them as cutters. That's why Kathleen Wynne is doubling down on the "we build people up" while "Tim Hudak cuts people down" metaphor. They think it's a winner. And it's possible that it might be.
Ideally, we should be focused on a society where government and other institutions enableeach other to do their work properly. But after decades where governments of various partisan affiliations have absorbed much of these institutions—I'm thinking here especially of education and health care—we are finding that there is very little left to enable. And that's why parties that want to limit the role of government find themselves on unsteady ground on virtually all areas (except business) in the eyes of voters. Voters might not like the cost of an expansive government, but the alternative is too scary. It's easier to create fear of the scythe than of the slow, creeping slime mold of government. But both are harmful to the common good. In the absence of a robust civil society, untargeted cuts to public service without addressing the key problem of whether government should be in the fields of, say, education and health care in the way they currently are, are likely to cause harm. But increasing government involvement will continue the long-term atrophy that these institutions already face and leave future governments with more responsibility, and more of the debt that comes with it.
What I will be listening for in this debate is hints from various parties about whether or not they recognize this as a problem, and whether or not there are nascent ideas—however small and insignificant at present—about how government can enable, rather than absorb, the civil society that is needed to slow this trend.