| Mar 08, 2007


Feature Article - March 8, 2007

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Feature Article - March 8, 2007

Provincial Conservatives are betting on short memoriesbyJeff Green

With a provincial election coming up this fall, the Conservative Party of Ontario is ramping up their election campaign strategy. In their attempt to return from the electoral wilderness back to power at Queen’s Park, the conservatives are hoping to start by winning back some of the rural ridings that they lost in the last election, when they won only 24 seats to the Liberals’ 72.

To that end, a white paper called ‘Strong Rural Communities: Building Ontario’s New Foundations’ was released about a week ago.

In the introduction to the 25 page report, it is described as a “kind of mid-term report on our work to develop a plan for rural communities.”

Indeed, the report is more a discussion of the problems faced by rural Ontario , and the failings of the current government, than of solutions, which are still under development and will no doubt form part of the party’s election platform.

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The report devotes a considerable amount of space to the farm income crisis but it also talks about the fiscal relationship between the provincial and municipal levels of government in a rural context.

The problem for the Conservatives is that the Liberals have only been in power for four years, and in the eight previous years a Conservative government was responsible for a wholesale re-organisation of municipal and provincial jurisdiction and funding arrangements, changes which are still having a tremendous impact.

While the Liberals have tinkered with some of these arrangements, it was the conservatives who put these arrangements in place. The section of the report entitled “Unfair fiscal relationship Who does what” starts with a statement; “Making municipalities pay an excessive share for funding of provincially mandated requirements hurts all communities, but the impact on smaller rural municipalities is even more pronounced because fewer property tax payers are available to shoulder the burden.”

Wait one minute.

Is this not a description of provincial downloading, whereby the province transferred the responsibility, but not all the funding support, for everything from ambulance service to road maintenance? And wasn’t it the Harris Conservative government that did all the downloading back in the mid-nineties, transferring the tax burden from provincial income taxes to municipal property taxes?

The Conservatives could convincingly argue that the Liberals have not reversed any of the downloading that the Conservatives put in place, but that would require admitting the downloading was an expensive mistake that should be reversed, which is not something they are likely to do.

They will have a difficult job convincing people that they can solve the problems in rural Ontario without investing provincial money, and they will have an even more difficult job explaining where they are going to get the money that is needed. Conservatives have spent four years railing against tax increases, so that does not seem to me among their options.

The McGuinty Liberals produced a “Rural Plan” two years ago, and it has not led to any improvements in the rural economy. The Conservatives are right when they say rural Ontario is suffering economically under the Liberals, but they still bear a lot of responsibility for current situation.

The Conservative party is wooing rural voters that are still paying the costs for policies the Conservatives themselves put in place.

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