There is an old definition of slapstick that runs something like this: A man is walking down the road and up ahead of him is an open manhole cover. We see the man's feet, then the open manhole. As the man gets closer and closer, we anticipate he will fall down the manhole. He concentrates on the manhole and neatly swerves to avoid falling in.
The problem is that in swerving, he steps on a banana peel beside the manhole cover and does a pratfall.
While this might define slapstick, it could easily be used to define the Ernie Eves approach to governing. Let's take a look at some examples where the premier, in hopes of avoiding an open manhole, has stepped smack onto a banana peel with the expected results.
Open Manhole: When running to replace Mike Harris as premier, Ernie understood that most Ontarians were retreating from the Common Sense Revolution. Public opinion polls indicated that most felt there was too much change too quickly. Eves ran as someone who was not a revolutionary, and tried, with some success, to place himself as a centrist, somewhere left of Jim Flaherty but right of Dalton McGuinty. He avoided the manhole by winning the leadership of the party and hence the premiership of Ontario.
The Banana Peel: Eves could not escape that fact that he was Mike Harris' right hand man during the first six years of the Common Sense Revolution. He was the hatchet man who cut the budget, laid off civil servants and oversaw massive privatization and downloading. The public remembered this, and his approval ratings never really recovered. At the same time, those on the right of the party felt that Eves had sold out. Flaherty supporters saw Eves as a waffler who could not be trusted to keep the revolution alive. The new premier had pleased no one.
Open Manhole: The Budget. The fall 2002 session at Queen's Park had not gone well for the government. By the spring of 2003, the premier was less happy meeting the legislature but had promised the public a budget. The ideal solution was to not meet the legislature until after a budget had been presented. Avoid the manhole by going to Magna and presenting the budget outside the legislature.
The Banana Peel: No one anticipated such a strong backlash. The Speaker of the legislature, academics and fiscal conservatives were appalled that the government would sidestep the legislature and present the budget at the workplace of one of the Conservative Party's larger financial backers. When it was eventually revealed that the budget production had cost $200,000, the bad news continued. The premier's only defence was that he thought it would have cost $100,000. The Tories, who prided themselves as fiscal managers, were left defending a 100 per cent cost overrun. Coming on the heels of two cabinet resignations over questionable expense accounts, the people who claimed they came to fix government were starting to look like people who came to loot it.
Open Manhole: In Mike Harris' second term, the government passed legislation requiring balanced budgets. The notion was to tie the hands of future governments and permanently restrict large public spending. The government also passed legislation requiring public referenda for future tax increases. As long as the economy kept growing, such a policy might have been sustainable. But post-Walkerton, the Ontario public became concerned that the government was cutting far too much and that we could not lose any more services. When the economy started to slow down, revenue decreased as well.
The Banana Peel: The government has placed itself in economic handcuffs. The folks who claim they have balanced five budgets in a row now find themselves staring at a potentially huge deficit. In order to minimize the potential disaster, they are counting on $1.7 billion from Ottawa that they simply will not get. They also need to cut spending by more than $800 million, and sell assets worth more than $2 billion. In order to meet the spending cuts, they implemented a hiring freeze. Bad timing, as this meant they would not hire an energy conservation specialist. Unfortunately this happened less than a week after the entire province lost power and at the same time the premier was telling Ontarians to conserve energy (they quickly backtracked). In order to meet the terms of their own legislation, they are now looking as selling the provinces assets. The problem is the only assets they can sell of any value are those that actually create revenue for the province: land along Highway 401 and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
Open Manhole: Energy. During the summer and fall of 2002, hydro rates were soaring, at least partially as a result of the government's move to deregulate the province's electricity system. Taking all the negative lessons of other jurisdictions that trod this path, the government claimed it would do things right. Acting on behalf of consumers, the premier capped hydro rates at 4.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. He argued that the price would average out to 4.3 cents in the long run, so there would be no deficit for taxpayers. He also encouraged Ontarians to conserve power, at the same time praising the fact that his rate cap would allow us to put on our Christmas lights after all.
Banana Peel: The government was now subsidizing Christmas lights and central air conditioning. While there was short-term relief on the part of consumers, the government now had little method of encouraging conservation. The premier told the public that, in his house, they did not run the dishwasher when it was half full. Not only did this suggestion seem out of touch (who does run a half-empty dishwasher?), but it avoided the larger issue of massive conservation. Conservation became a problem of the government's own making. It is true that the rate freeze had nothing to do with the power outage in August. But it is difficult to believe the government's pleas to conserve when it has set a ridiculously low price for power. The cost has rarely fallen below the subsidized rate. Further, Eves must now convince the private sector to invest in the electricity market when he is encouraging people to use less power. There is now no longer an incentive to save power or to supply more of it.
There are many other manholes we could talk about: education, tax credits for private schools, promises to municipalities for a new deal that they didn't want, and MPP's salaries. There is also the whole question of election timing. The premier has squandered many opportunities to go to the people, and every time we near an election call, he steps on another banana peel. But as we near the inevitable election, the premier must learn the lesson of all politicians and focus on the bigger picture. The government has not taken a broader view of the problems and challenges facing Ontarians. In concentrating so hard on the manhole of the day, the premier has allowed himself to step on banana peels. He still has time to recover, but he does run the risk of a public that thinks the slapstick act is starting to wear thin.