Ontario’s next generation

As originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, February 7, 2014

The proverb “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” refers to a family’s generational cycle through poverty and prosperity; does this proverb also reflect Ontario’s political generations?

The proverb demonstrates a timeless truth that the family’s first generation start off with little, and with hard work create a financial fortune. The second generation continues to work but also enjoy the benefits and the family’s wealth plateaus. The third generation, with no direct experience of work, consumes the family fortune. The fourth generation either returns to work to build a new fortune or begs for alms on the street.

Since Confederation, Ontario was unrivalled as Canada’s economic engine. Our robust economy and prosperity built the infrastructure, hospitals and schools that others strove to emulate. Ontario attracted people from other provinces and countries as the preferred destination for opportunity and prosperity. This was not a matter of coincidence or accident; Ontario had acted as the first generation of the proverbial family. Provincial policies were a clear reflection of the people and the times, and wealth was built.

Ontario’s first political generation, like the people they represented, enacted policies based on shared values with an eye toward future prosperity. These included selling Crown land for development, resource policies that permitted the extraction of raw materials and their refinement into useful, more valuable products, and working with private interests to develop infrastructure that moved people and production more efficiently. Most importantly, these first generation policies limited government’s responsibilities, and minimized government intervention in people’s daily lives.

For some time now, Ontario politicians have been acting as the spoiled third generation, consuming the financial fortunes and equity our ancestors created, while holding the values and economic lessons that produced that wealth in contempt. The first of the third generation policies occurred during the Bill Davis years; the Niagara Escarpment Commission, imposition of rent controls and the purchase of Suncor marked the beginning of this new political generation.

The present political generation, like the first, is also a reflection of the people today. For the first time historically, Ontario is now a have-not province, with relatively high unemployment and rising social costs. Although this political generation has not consumed all our fortune and equity, they are on the path to do so. Yearly operating deficits add to the mounting debt and a perpetual remortgaging of our provincial assets. The past’s keen eye to the future has been substituted by a fixation on today’s political ambitions.

Our vast reserves of raw material and resources are now encumbered by policies that prevent their extraction and processing. The Far North Act is just one of these opprobrious third-generation laws that compound the failings of the earlier forestry and mining act amendments. Once, we proudly built the Big Nickel; most recently we extinguished the Ring of Fire.

Much of Ontario’s 30 million acres of private land and 325 million acres of Crown land now have a multitude of political liens, easements and conveyances registered on title through regulation or legislation. Had these policies been in place at Confederation, Ontario would have remained a colonial bush lot.

This third political generation is exemplified by the scandalous waste of our wealth on politics as a means unto itself. Ordinary people do not equate each taxpayer’s share of wasted billions of dollars on gas plants (or eHeath, green energy and Ornge for that matter) with the cost of a cup of coffee, as our energy minister suggests. An ever-rising cost of living and doing business, exacerbated by costly and failing green energy programs, burdens our highways with an exodus of jobs, paved by names like Heinz, Kellogg’s, Xtrata and hundreds more lesser-knowns.

With certainty, this third political generation cannot last forever. What is unknown is this: Will our next political generation be personified by the proverb’s fourth generation, begging and pleading for federal alms, or will the people resolutely find and elect first generation-type politicians who can build a new fortune?