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Doug Ford’s Ontario: Who wins, and what does it mean for Ontario’s future?

Published in the Conversation, Huffington Post, National Post and other outlets, February 24, 2019

The first few months of Premier Doug Ford’s government has produced a long and growing list of losers. An incomplete catalogue, so far, includes:

  • Municipalities, hospitals, colleges and university, school boards, and homeowners who were counting on GreenON greenhouse gas cap and trade revenues to help finance energy efficiency retrofits to their buildings, provide improved transit services and adapt to the increasingly obvious impacts of climate change;
  • municipalities and indigenous communities whose renewable energy projects were arbitrarily cancelled;
  • Long-suffering Hydro One ratepayers who will ultimately have to absorb $103 million cost of the failed attempt to acquire the US northwest utility Avista, an effort torpedoed by the Premier’s firing of the CEO and board of the partially privatized utility;
  • Kindergarten and primary school students faced with the likelihood of larger class sizes;
  • Tenants facing faster evictions;
  • Post-secondary institutions and their students presented with budget cuts and reductions in student funding disguised as a tuition fee cut;
  • Parents and families of autistic children who are emerging as the victims of a similar bait-and-switch funding strategy;
  • Those in need of complex health care services who may find themselves at the mercy of a proposed health mega-agency.

The emerging situation begs the question of who does win in Doug Ford’s Ontario? Despite the government’s frequent claims to be aiming to make the province “open for business,” there are surprisingly few clear winners under the Ford regime. Those who are hardly represent future pillars for Ontario’s economy and society.

So far, apart from some obvious patronage appointments, like sending former principal secretary Jennie Byrne to the Ontario Energy Board, and the attempted appointment of Ford family friend Ron Tavernor as Commissioner of the OPP, the list of those coming out ahead is remarkably short.

Developers of sprawling low-density urban development, particularly on greenfield (a.k.a. farmland) locations at the periphery of existing cities and towns have emerged as consistent favourites of the Ford regime. Even before he was elected the premier was caught making comments about opening “a big chunk” the protected greenbelt of farms and forests surrounding the City of Toronto and other urban areas of southern Ontario to urban development. After having to retreat from those statements, once in government Ford attempted to open the door to greenbelt development through Bill 66, The Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, only to have to retreat again in the face of intense public and municipal opposition.

More subtly the government is now proposing changes to the GTA Regional Growth Plan. The Growth Plan was adopted at the same time as the Greenbelt, with the intention of curbing urban sprawl, and prompting the development of more complete communities, designed to reduce the need to drive to work, school, shopping and other activities. The government’s proposed changes would reduce requirements for transit viable densities in new developments, and make urban expansions onto farmland easier.

Facilitating turning prime agricultural land into subdivisions, strip-malls and parking lots hardly constitutes a sustainable economic or environmental strategy for the province in the long term. Sprawling development embeds crippling long-term costs of maintaining roads, sewers and water lines and other infrastructure over large areas. Moreover, low-density, single use, development patterns tend to work against mixing of residential, economic, commercial and institutional land-uses that have been associated with the kinds of creative, knowledge and service based activities that now provide the foundation for much of the GTA and Hamilton region’s economy.

The second major winner so far appears to be the province’s nuclear industry.  The Ford government made early and completely unexamined commitments to the “life-extension” of the aged Pickering nuclear facility, and to carry forward refurbishments of the Bruce and Darlington facilities. These projects constitute largest energy investments in province’s history and, as highlighted in the previous government’s own energy plan, will be drivers of future increases in electricity rates for decades to come.

While these projects provide short-term employment in the regions associated with these facilities, in the longer term the sector is a technological dead-end. There have been no new CANDU reactor sales in more than two decades, and the few other new nuclear projects that were going forward in the US, UK, France and Finland have been largely abandoned by their proponents as hopelessly uneconomic.

In effect the Ford government has further reinforced the reliance of the Ontario electricity sector on nuclear energy, while other jurisdictions in North America and Europe moving forward with other emerging energy technologies focussed on smart grids, renewable energy generation and energy storage. The result, in combination with the government’s aversion to anything to do with renewable energy, may be to sideline the province’s role in the development of those technologies - technologies that likely represent the best future pathways to environmentally and economically sustainable energy systems.

An economic strategy whose pillars appear to be facilitating urban sprawl and propping up a declining nuclear industry hardly provides a viable guide for the province’s future.  At the same time the very short list of winners, and accumulating list of losers, in Doug Ford’s Ontario cannot bode well for the government’s political future. The government needs to come up with a more sophisticated understanding of what “open for business” might really mean for an advanced sub-national jurisdiction in the 21st century, before its own political future, and more importantly, the province’s economy, environment and society, suffer the consequences of its lack of imagination and vision.