Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are trying to refashion themselves as frugal fiscal managers while at the same time making a nearly $500-million bet on postsecondary education.
The Liberals are making tuition grants the centrepiece of a campaign platform that focuses on helping Ontario families cope with strained finances. The platform makes its clear that the Liberals plan to spend the next five weeks going head-to-head with the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats on the same turf the opposition parties have staked out: consumers' pocketbooks. But the Liberals will do so by adhering to the self-described Education Premier's vision to create a well educated, highly skilled work force.
Just hours after Mr. McGuinty unveiled his platform on Monday at a campaign rally, he faced questions from the opposition about how he could pay for new initiatives without raising taxes. The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats pointed to the Liberals' track record – they raised taxes after the elections in 2003 and 2007 even though there was no mention of this in their platform.
The biggest-ticket item in the platform would help families offset the rapidly rising cost of postsecondary education. Students from families with annual incomes of less than $160,000 would be eligible for grants of $1,600 a year for university tuition and $730 for college, effective Jan. 1. The pledge would lower tuition fees by nearly a third for the vast majority of students and cost taxpayers $486-million a year.
In all, the new initiatives would cost $1.5-billion by year four – a relatively modest amount and a sharp reversal from the Liberals' free-wheeling days, when program spending rose 7 per cent a year on average.
Mr. McGuinty struck a tone that sounded downright sombre at times during the rally at a Toronto hotel, where he officially released the platform for the Oct. 6 election.
"These are serious times. Ontario needs a serious plan," he said.
Mr. McGuinty, who is campaigning for a third straight term, will try to persuade voters that they should choose the leader who is the best custodian of Ontario's fragile economy and the only one who can keep the province on track. In a 60-second television ad unveiled last month, he acknowledged that he is not "the most popular guy in the country." But he said doing what is right does not always make voters like you.
In essence, the Liberals are borrowing a page from the federal Conservatives by asking voters to stick with them and keep the economy on track. Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a majority in the recent federal election by campaigning as the leader with the strongest grip on the economy.
The Liberals say they can spend money on new initiatives and still meet their target to balance the province's books by fiscal 2017-18. The province is facing a projected deficit of $15-billion this year.
But Mr. McGuinty, who has been branded "the taxman" by the Tories, gave the opposition fresh ammunition on Monday when asked by reporters if he could make a pledge not to raise taxes.
"We will not," Mr. McGuinty said. But he refused to say the word "taxes."
This is "the elephant in the room" Mr. McGuinty does not want to talk about, said Andrea Mandel-Campbell, the Progressive Conservative candidate for the riding of Don Valley West.
"The Liberal platform is a sideshow," she told reporters at an impromptu news conference, standing in front of a red, inflated elephant. "The real story is that he will raise your taxes yet again."
Paul Ferreira, NDP candidate for York South-Weston, also weighed in: "After eight long years of broken promises, families just can't believe McGuinty Liberals any more."