The poor performance on environment and climate change issues by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government is well-known.
The province’s cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gas emissions has been terminated. So too has the GreenOn program that municipalities, hospitals, colleges and universities, school boards and homeowners were counting on to help finance energy efficiency retrofits to their buildings, provide improved transit services and adapt to the increasingly obvious impacts of climate change.
The long-suffering ratepayers of Hydro One will find themselves having to absorb the $103 million cost of the failed attempt to acquire the United States utility Avista, an effort torpedoed by the premier’s firing of the CEO and board of the partially privatized utility.
The list of losers under the Ford regime is now expanding beyond the energy and climate change themes that were the early targets of his government.
Kindergarten and primary school students are now faced with the likelihood of larger class sizes.
Tenants are likely facing faster evictions.
Post-secondary institutions and their students have found that a tuition fee cut has translated into reductions in institutional budgets and student funding.
The parents and families of autistic children are emerging as the victims of a similar bait-and-switch funding strategy.
Those in need of complex health-care services may find themselves at the mercy of a proposed health mega-agency.
The emerging situation begs the question: Who’s winning in Doug Ford’s Ontario?
List of winners is short
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 winning hardly represent future pillars for Ontario’s economy and society.
Developers of sprawling low-density urban development, particularly on 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” of the protected greenbelt of farms and forests surrounding the city of Toronto and other urban areas of southern Ontario to urban development.
After retreating from those statements in the heat of the campaign, 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 reverse himself again in the face of intense public and municipal opposition.
Subdivisions, strip malls & parking lots
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 Plan as part of the province’s overall strategy to curb urban sprawl and spur the development of more complete communities designed to reduce the need to drive to work, school, shopping and other activities.
The Ford government’s proposed changes would reduce requirements for transit-viable new developments, and make urban expansions onto farmland easier.
Making it easier to turn 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.
What’s more, low-density, single-use development patterns tend to work against mixing 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 greater Toronto area and Hamilton region’s economy.
Nuclear industry a winner
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 nuclear facility in Pickering, east of Toronto, and to carry forward refurbishments of the Bruce and Darlington facilities.
These projects constitute the largest energy investments in the 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 looks like 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 United States, the United Kingdom, 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 focused 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 technologies that likely represent the best future pathways to environmentally and economically sustainable energy systems.
An economic strategy that focuses on facilitating urban sprawl and propping up a declining nuclear industry hardly provides a viable guide for the province’s future.
The very short list of winners, and a growing 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.