Tim Hudak’s economic truth hurts, as it should

The Ontario PC leader’s fears aren’t idle – Ontario’s economy isn’t strong, and its budgets have suffered

Photo by Blair Gable

Photo by Blair Gable

The knock on Tim Hudak is that he’s hard to like, but I had no trouble enjoying our brief talk in a loft in Ottawa’s ByWard Market the other day. The Ontario Progressive Conservative leader locks onto an interviewer’s eyes with a steady gaze, in the manner of a man who has been taught by professionals to lock onto an interviewer’s eyes with a steady gaze. It’s unnerving. Am I allowed to look away? But it seemed to me he believed that what he was saying was true and important. That’s a low bar, but a lot of politicians can’t clear it. Hudak did. If everyone in Ontario could interview him, this election might go better for him.

Hudak is in his second campaign for premier of Canada’s largest province. He managed to blow a big polling lead and lose to Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals in 2011. Through much of the 20th century, Ontario’s Conservatives won most elections with little trouble. Something in this party does not like a loser. Ernie Eves and John Tory, the other two Tories who lost to McGuinty, were dismissed after their first defeats. Hudak’s colleagues permitted him to try again. It was the right decision. Leading a party in a campaign is complex and surreal work. Hudak will have learned from rookie errors, as McGuinty and Mike Harris learned from their first defeats. But if he loses again he will be out.

What went wrong last time? “Talked more about what was wrong with the other guy,” Hudak said. “Didn’t talk enough about my plan.” After he lost, Hudak often quoted one of the Wells’s Rules I sometimes peddle: Voters are ruthless casting directors, so a leader who applies for the job of opposition leader will get it. This time he is applying for premier.

His plan is the Million Jobs Plan, the title of the Progressive Conservatives’ election platform. It calls for sharp cuts to government programs as a spur to private sector job creation. “It’s a pretty basic iron law of economics,” he said. “Lower taxes mean more jobs. Higher taxes mean fewer jobs. More affordable energy is going to mean more jobs. Higher energy costs mean fewer jobs. We’re a party that has laid out an affordable energy plan, less debt, lower taxes. And the other two parties? They’re the opposite. So it’s a very crystal-clear choice.”

It sure is. Hudak would cut 100,000 jobs from the provincial public sector. Since he would protect doctors, nurses and cops—but not teachers—from those cuts, by some estimates he’d need to cut one-sixth of the jobs in unprotected sectors. Some would go through attrition. Not all.

So by putting a number to his cuts, Hudak creates a target. By putting a number to his hopes he creates another. A million jobs? There are only half a million unemployed Ontarians. But his goal is to create those million jobs over eight years. He says that rate of job creation happened once before, in the late 1990s—at the peak of the global tech boom, while Mike Harris was making smaller cuts to the public service than the ones Hudak plans.

Can he do it again, in much less clement weather? “If we don’t do this—if we don’t create at least a million jobs—we’re into Europe-style stagnation.” Ontario has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the past decade, he says. Most of Canada’s job growth lately has been in Alberta. Some of those jobs have gone to former Ontarians who moved west. I mentioned Philippe Couillard, whose Quebec Liberals won the recent election in that province. Hudak said he was happy Couillard beat the Parti Québécois, but now he worries that if Quebec gets its economic act together, Ontario will bleed jobs east as well as west.

It’s not an idle fear. Southern Ontario’s economy isn’t strong. Ontario’s provincial budgets have suffered. In 2012 McGuinty hired Don Drummond, a leading bank economist, to write a report describing the calamity that would ensue if Ontario didn’t get its budget deficits under control. Then McGuinty quit. His successor, Kathleen Wynne, implemented few of Drummond’s recommendations. Deficits keep growing. Wynne promises they’ll reverse and start shrinking. On their own. Without the tough medicine Hudak prescribes.

Hudak’s reward for picking a round number like one million has been to get his math picked apart, credibly I think, by outside observers. Predicting job numbers is a mug’s game anyway. If he had called his platform “Ontario back to work” and left the numbers out, he’d offer his opponents a smaller target.

But the problems Drummond described are real. Including this one: “Ontarians have not yet grasped” the decline of the province’s manufacturing base, its corrosive effect on public services, and the need to reverse the decline, Drummond wrote. He urged the Liberals to inform the electorate. They ignored the request. Why inform an electorate? Wynne, who has all the personal charm Hudak is said to lack, insists she will not cut government services. That way she attracts some voters who fear cuts, and some who know cuts are inevitable and simply trust Wynne to flip-flop after her election. I expect a Wynne government would do most of the cutting a Hudak government would. Only Hudak admits it. We’ll see whether that was a good idea.

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