Premier Dalton McGuinty's misfortune was to govern Ontario, and ours to be governed by him, at a time when the province faced excruciating challenges.
McGuinty came of age politically during the 1990s, decade of the New World Order. He embodies that decade's triumphant neo-liberalism, a paradigm on public service that almost totally upended the one that preceded it.
The entire direction of government from the 1950s to the 1980s ground to a halt. That was the era of TV Ontario, the Science Centre, Ontario Place, a constellation of community colleges, galaxies of public parks and conservation areas, scores of social housing projects, even subways in Toronto, as well as monuments to humane laws and ideals such as the Ontario Human Rights Act.
There were bold laws instituting pay equity for women and workplace health and safety, brand new government institutions like ministries of the environment, and breakthrough projects in government-citizen participation; the blue box for recycling, for example, is said to be second only to medicare in its popularity among Canadians.
Where are the public initiatives of the McGuinty years to match the massive achievements of this pre-1990s generation?
With the exception of kindergarten extension (still being implemented) and smaller class sizes, the Greenbelt and the phasing out of coal-fired power plants, all significant achievements, nine neo-liberal years at the helm leave little of magnificence.
The poverty and hunger situation is worse than it was under Mike Harris; employment equity for immigrants is no better; home care is a mess; there's been no significant reform of the health care system; no global warming plan, no worthwhile sustainable job creation.
To get a sense of how neo-liberalism is ingrained in the very cityscape, think of the aged Queen's Park legislative offices or the mid-century civil service buildings to their east, all majestic structures surrounded by ample public space. Where is today's government architecture that makes a built-for-the-ages statement about the splendour of the public realm or about the leading role of public service and public space? Nowhere to be found, since government now rents space in office buildings. Who knows if civil servants will be around long enough to be worth settling down? That's quite the statement.
It's unlikely the proposed casino, symbol of the Liberals' gamble on a fast-buck economy, would do much to change this non-legacy.
And it's not just the big-ticket projects that are missing. There's no litany of meaningful small things with shoestring budgets. Abolishing the Ontario Municipal Board, for example, a body that epitomizes the neo-liberal commitment to commercial viability over ethical or humane values, would have been a decent money-saving reform as well as a major step forward for municipal self-government.
McGuinty's Green Energy Act, with its feed-in tariffs, was a nice teaser, but the real money went to nukes and gas plants (not to mention the cancellation of gas plants), instead of energy efficiency. A green building code tailored to the condo boom of the last decade could have saved tens of millions in energy bills and made new plants unnecessary, and updating the Aggregate Resources Act would have killed off pressure from mega-quarries.
Allowing community-scale composting by modernizing Ministry of Environment laws would have been another light and easy touch. Or supporting government agencies as they reorganize to phase in local food purchases.
It's not money the McGuinty government has been short on so much as a commitment to a public presence for the public interest.
There has been no mission to add to the public policy information stored in government offices and belonging to the people. Rather, the current regime routinely contracts out policy research and development to corporate and global consultants.
"It's been a long descent into the valley of disappointment" since the Liberals trounced the officially anti-government Conservatives in 2003, a mid-ranking civil servant recently told me. "The whole thing turned to mush."
Even bank economist Don Drummond, who personally benefited from this contracting out when he was paid to help McGuinty fashion a new economic strategy, favoured more in-house expertise. Government's priority should be to invest in the future, not the status quo, which always "has plenty of advocates," he argued. Without in-house experts, the public does not own the information, meaning there is less impetus internally to push for policy changes. Limiting the size and pay of the civil service, Drummond warned, was "folly."
As his parting gesture, McGuinty prorogued the legislature, thereby undoing all the work that has gone into law-making this year - an investment that belongs to the public, not to one party.
Though I believe him to be an inordinately gracious and decent person, this middle finger to the supreme role of a legislature says most of what there is to be said about the paradigm of public institutions he functioned under, which is well worth identifying during the contest to replace him.