How we got here

By Emily Chung
CBCNews.ca | Updated Aug. 31, 2007

Dalton McGuinty Dalton McGuinty gives his acceptance speech after the Ontario Liberal Party won the 2003 election (CBC)

Dalton McGuinty's Liberals swept to power in 2003 with a promise that their government would offer a far different flavour than the previous eight years of Progressive Conservative rule under Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.

Ontario voters "have chosen more than just change," McGuinty said after ousting Eves.

"They have chosen something more profound. They have rejected a negative message and chosen a positive one."

Four years later, McGuinty's challenge is to convince voters that this time around, they would rather have more of the same — despite his opponents' negative messages about just what that means.

During the 2003 election campaign, the Liberals played the right notes when they promised they would:

  • Not raise taxes.
  • Balance the budget within a year.
  • Shut down the province's polluting coal-fired generating plants by 2007.
  • Invest in public schools and reduce elementary class sizes.
  • Increase subsidized housing and tenant protection.
  • Crack down on private health care.

Those vows helped McGuinty win 47 per cent of the popular vote and 72 seats in the 103-seat legislature.

Broken vows

But the same vows helped make the beginning of McGuinty's stint as premier a rocky one.

Shortly after being elected, the Liberals announced that they had inherited an unforeseen $5.5 billion deficit from the previous Progressive Conservative government.

Consequently, they would not be able to balance the budget that year, said Finance Minister Greg Sorbara explained at the time. He estimated the budget would not be balanced until 2007-08.

Mere months later, McGuinty's government introduced premiums of $60 to $900 per taxpayer to supplement the province's health-care funding.

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory has called it the "biggest tax increase in the history of the province."

The Liberals also came under fire for postponing their shut-downs of the province's coal-fired power plants by seven years, until 2014.

McGuinty has faced no scandals on the scale that dogged his Tory predecessors, such as the Walkerton tainted water disaster that many blamed, at least in part, on cutbacks under Harris. However, there have been smaller incidents that scuffed the Liberals' image.

For example, in July 2007, citizenship and immigration minister Mike Colle resigned after a damning auditor's report that found the government handed out $32 million in grants to ethnic groups without any accountability.

Some of the government's missteps have already translated into losses at the polls. The NDP have snatched three former Liberal seats in byelections since 2003:

  • Andrea Horwath won in Hamilton East, previously held by Liberal Dominic Agostino.
  • Cheri DiNovo won Parkdale-High Park, previously held by Liberal Gerard Kennedy.
  • Paul Ferreira won York-South Weston, the former seat of Liberal Joe Cordiano.

On top of that, in March 2007, Mississauga South MPP Tim Peterson left the Liberals to sit as an Independent and said he would run for the Tories in the upcoming election. Peterson, brother of former Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson, said McGuinty's government had failed to address the needs of constituents in his riding.

Balanced budget

McGuinty's government has had some notable successes. For example, the province's finances have been looking rosier since the Liberals' early days in office.

Ontario posted a surplus of $298 million in 2005-06, despite deficit predictions. It predicted a 2006-07 surplus of $300 million and projected a balanced budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the Liberals claim they have been able spend their controversial health tax on programs intended to reduce wait times, increase access to home care and long-term care, and boost public health programs.

During their term, the McGuinty Liberals were also praised and panned after they:
  • Boosted the minimum wage gradually to $8 in 2007, from $6.85 in 2003.
  • Gave cities greater powers.
  • Hiked the salaries of the province's doctors through a new deal.
  • Loosened rules for waste disposal projects, including those that burn waste.

Campaign unofficially kicks off

Under the fixed election date introduced by the McGuinty government, the official election call was scheduled for Sept. 10, 2007. However, the unofficial campaigning started extra early.

The Liberals began trotting out a growing number of plans and promises a good two seasons before the Aug. 31 election date.

The 2007-2008 Ontario budget, delivered in March, was considered by many to be a pre-election budget due to spending on many programs that were to be introduced well after the October election such as:

  • A housing allowance for low-income families starting 2008.
  • Minimum wage increases in 2008, 2009 and 2010, raising it to $10.25.
  • Property tax reassessments every four years starting 2009, with increases phased in.

Then, on June 4, a day before adjourning the legislature, McGuinty made a familiar vow: If re-elected, he would not raise taxes.

Over the summer, McGuinty made funding announcements around the province and revealed a budget surplus that was $2 billion more than the government had predicted for the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

Religious schools and municipal funding

Meanwhile, other party leaders have been trying to remind voters about unpopular moves made by the McGuinty government earlier in its term and to distinguish themselves on issues the Liberals have not addressed.

The Progressive Conservatives, under Tory, have promised to scrap the health tax introduced by the Liberals almost four years earlier. McGuinty has insisted the tax is needed, but Tory pointed out that the value of the tax was close to the value of the budget surplus.

Tory has also tried to stand out by promising in July to extend public funding beyond non-religious and Catholic schools to all faith-based schools. A month later, McGuinty spoke out in favour of the existing system and criticized Tory's plan as "regressive."

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Howard Hampton vowed in August to help cash-strapped municipalities by paying some of the costs of provincially mandated services — many of which were downloaded from the province to the municipalities in the Harris years.

The Liberal government had earlier refused to upload the costs. However, in the days that followed Hampton's announcement, both Tory and McGuinty pitched their own plans for relieving some of the financial burden on the municipalities.

Although they were brought up before the official start of the fall campaign, religious schools and municipal funding may end up being some of major issues in the upcoming election.

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