Rae in the Premier's office; ballet-opera house model (below): painstaking
The manner of the decision, as much as its outcome, reflected the painstaking approach that New Democrat Premier Bob Rae has brought to his eight-week-old Ontario government. The issue: whether his new administration would honor a commitment by the previous Liberal cabinet to contribute provincially owned land and $55 million in cash towards the construction of a ballet-opera house in downtown Toronto. For four weeks, the matter absorbed the energies of three provincial ministries, numerous senior civil servants and the premier. The issue ran a gauntlet of two full-dress cabinet meetings—one of which lasted 12 hours—and lengthy debates among the eight key ministers who sit on the cabinet’s policy and priorities board. Finally, on Nov. 9, the new ministers made up their minds: the government would
donate the land but withhold the cash, arguing that the money was better spent addressing the needs of the homeless and hungry. Strikingly, Rae had argued strongly in favor of the
project, but bowed to the cabinet consensus.
That conclusion surprised some observers. Said Gordon Floyd, president of Public Affairs Management and a consultant who specializes in Ontario government affairs: “Rae wanted the ballet-opera house, but he wasn’t prepared to run over his cabinet colleagues.” To one senior bureaucrat familiar with both the NDP and their Liberal predecessors, the precedent was instructive. He told Maclean’s:. “Rae is not a prima donna, like Peterson was.
This is a democratic government.” The premier himself, who said he was “very happy with what happened,” described the process in different terms, calling it one of “collective” decision-making—in keeping with his party’s social democratic principles.
By whatever description, however, the mood was plainly one of extreme caution as Ontario’s New Democrats put the finishing touches on a throne speech scheduled for delivery at this week’s opening of the provincial legislature. In a series of exhaustive meetings and 14-hour days, senior cabinet ministers struggled to reconcile ambitious campaign commitments with a recession-depleted treasury and the complex realities of running the country’s second-largest government. And despite Rae’s apparent willingness to bend his
ONTARIO’S NEW DEMOCRATS FACE THE DEMANDS OF MAKING THE HARD CHOICES WHEN TIMES ARE TOUGH
own desires to those of his cabinet colleagues, many observers said that the Ontario premier had moved quickly to centralize his government’s decision-making on important issues so that he can monitor developments most closely. Said Floyd: “He’s set things up structurally to make it certain that the cabinet office will be directing all the major policy issues.”
For one thing, Financial Institutions Minister Peter Kormos, who also holds the consumer affairs portfolio, is nominally in charge of overseeing the introduction of public auto insurance for Ontario’s six million drivers, a key NDP campaign promise. But, in fact, the task of working out the details has been assigned to civil servants working under the direction of Andrew Szende, secretary to the inner cabinet—and not those in Kormos’s ministry. That assignment reflected Rae’s determination to forestall rivalries among his 25 cabinet ministers. Declared the premier in an interview with Maclean’s:. “We’re not into playing games between ministries. We don’t have little empires. We have a cabinet that speaks for the whole government.”
At the same time, some ministers have been forced to scale down their immediate plans because of the depleted provincial treasury. Environment Minister Ruth Grier, for one, was disturbed to find only four civil servants working on the Liberals’ clean-air program when she assumed her post. As an opposition critic, she had lambasted the Liberals for dragging their feet on the anti-pollution measure after promising tougher regulations in 1987. But after ordering her staff to hasten their preparations of the regulations, she concluded that she could only do so by reassigning personnel from other programs. “We can’t afford to lose peo-
ple from those programs either,” a chastened Grier told Maclean ’s last week. “We’re looking for more resources.”
Grier, a determined 54-year-old Dublin native and mother of three, has also discovered that some of her ideas needed fine tuning. While in opposition, she introduced a private member’s bill that she described as an environmental bill of rights—which the Liberals first supported and then abandoned. Among its
proposed provisions: that the environment ministry hold public hearings before issuing a permit for any project. Unknown to Grier was the fact that, in addition to licensing large developments, the ministry also issues permits for every septic tank installed in the province. Anticipating that she would now reintroduce the bill, this time with the government’s backing, Grier’s deputy minister recommended that she exempt small items from the requirement. Said Grier: “When I was in opposition, the civil service wouldn’t want to share information because I could often use it to hurt their minister. Now, it’s different.”
In other instances, the NDP has forced the bureaucracy to bend. During his second week as a cabinet minister, Kormos, a flamboyant 38-year-old bachelor who jokes that he purchased his green 1990 Corvette because of its environmentally friendly color, received from his staff a draft of a consumer protection bill developed under the Liberals. Sitting last week in his ninth-floor office, where he has a framed poster of president John F. Kennedy, Kormos recalled his reaction: “I read it. I thought about it. And I said: ‘It’s good, but it’s not an NDP bill. We can do better.’ ” He then instructed ministry experts to rewrite the bill, and to insert clauses requiring businesses to provide rental contracts and warranties in plain, everyday language. Said Kormos: “It’s time consumers got the protection they deserve.”
While some new ministers have won the early confidence of the bureaucracy, others have been privately criticized for ignoring expert advice. When Housing Minister David Cooke assumed his post, ministry officials told him that parts of the NDP’s promise to toughen the province’s rent review system were unre-
alistic. Cooke had made plain his desire to make it more difficult for landlords to raise rents to recover the cost of renovations or such expenses as higher utility rates—something that is allowed under the current system. Ministry experts told Cooke that such a plan would discourage developers from building new rental accommodation and dissuade landlords from improving existing apartments. In one official’s words, Cooke responded: “I don’t care. Do it anyway.” And he instructed his staff to draft tough new guidelines restricting rent increases. As for Toronto’s proposed balletopera house, supporters said last week that they may be able to keep the project alive. One way: using an estimated $60 million in potential revenue from development rights to the
land—which the province also donated. But with his refusal to provide hard cash, Rae risked alienating an important NDP constituency among the artistic community. It was only the first of what is certain to prove to be a long line of difficult choices that Rae must make in guiding his new government towards an elusive consensus.
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