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DALTON THE MAGNIFICENT

John Chuckman

We have the oddest form of government these days in Ontario. Almost every week there is something new, often new in the sense of bizarre or absurd. You might regard it as a form of circus. Dalton the Magnificent, in the blue-white glare of batteries of spotlights, sometimes appears in tights and gleaming sequined little pants bowing to the crowd from the high wire. Other times he appears as ringmaster in white jodhpurs and boots, cracking his whip and making announcements about coming acts.

I think Dalton must have a fellow high-wire man posted on the roof of Queen’s Park whose full-time job is launching trial balloons. The variety of these has been remarkable, almost all of them falling limply to earth as the gas seeps out. My favorite so far was for replacing the trillium as Ontario’s symbol. Yes, that’s right, replacing the trillium, a symbol as well established as the maple leaf is for the nation, an affectionate symbol of spring’s coming to the province each year. Where, other than as part of a circus, would this idea be thought worth suggesting? It was quietly dropped, but you have to ask yourself how it ever saw the light of day, particularly from a government supposedly working, sleeves rolled up, late into every night to solve a massive set of problems with which Ontario is saddled.

Sometimes, Dalton feels the need to step forward boldly in his full ringmaster’s costume with silk hat and red cutaway coat, draw his pistol, and shoot down one of these trial balloons threatening to create a serious hazard. He did this for the one about the possible need to restrict public-sector wages. Bang! and Dalton’s smoking gun was re-holstered.

During his first months most of the new announcements were about election promises he would not be keeping. These included everything from his written pledge not to increase taxes and a promise to halt a huge development on the Oak Ridges Moraine to controlling private tolls on Highway 407 and preventing increases in electricity rates. The odd thing about these promises was that almost none of them was necessary for Dalton’s election. Polls had shown the people of Ontario so tired of the right-wing excesses of Mike Harris that, even though Harris had retired, they were ready to hand power to the Liberals.

But for some reason, Dalton just went right on making promises. His behavior suggests an obsessive compulsion to promise, perhaps not altogether different to the obsessive compulsion of some people who bankrupt their families while madly playing at Ontario’s shiny new gambling palaces.

Recently we had an announcement about higher results on the Ontario literacy test given to all grade-ten students. Naturally, the praises of the Magnificent One Himself were fulsomely included as having brought forth this fruit. You could almost see him in tights and sequins bowing and throwing kisses to the crowd. But even a brief analysis shows the claim as ridiculous, revealing the threadbare elbows and seat bottom of Dalton’s shimmering costume.

I have heard Dalton’s Minister of Education answer questions. Nothing fresh or interesting seems likely ever to have clouded this politician’s mind. Warm slogans and pat harmless phrases seemed to be the extent of his intellectual resources. These were all delivered in a tone you might expect from an announcement about a new desk calendar at a convention for business-form designers. The people asking questions might just as well have typed them into a computer equipped with a random-access collection of the minister’s clichés.

But there are more fundamental reasons for regarding Dalton’s words on literacy with the same hopeless cynicism that readers of Pravda in the old Soviet Union must have experienced countless times with each new announcement that some production target in the latest five-year plan had been met early or exceeded.

The tests in question were administered in October, 2004, and here was Dalton, elected near the end of October, 2003, taking credit for an improved result. I hope readers have some appreciation of the time lags that are necessarily involved even when governments have good ideas. What amazing programs did Dalton create, legislate, and put through the slow and cumbersome educational administrative apparatus, all in time to influence daily classroom practices of thousands of teachers almost instantly after his election? The claim was embarrassing nonsense to anyone who understands the workings of government and a huge bureaucracy like Ontario’s public schools.

Actual knowledge of the test itself deepens the cynicism. Anyone without a personal stake in Ontario’s professional public education establishment who has seen these tests knows they are ridiculous, a holdover from Mike Harris’s pathetic efforts at reforming education.

It would take considerable political courage to eliminate this pointless test. After all, if you poll the public (as The Globe and Mail did a while back) on some simple question about students needing to be literate, you will naturally get an overwhelmingly positive response. But the nature of this test and the way it is administered makes it a poor measure of literacy.

I became familiar with the test and the practices around it through the experience of our student from China. Although an extremely bright young man – he since has been accepted and given a scholarship for a difficult program at University of Toronto – he failed the written literacy test.

So how does Ontario’s educational system manage to pass a student like ours? The failed student attends an extra one-term special course, upon completion of which he or she receives a pass in literacy. It’s the kind of thing we used to call a bird course at university, although a still better adjective might be Mickey Mouse.

Our student managed to pass the course. Actually, considering the nature of the material involved, it is hard to see who would not. It did, however, mark something of an educational watershed for him. The class was so mind-numbing, containing mainly academically-weak students and a teacher who typically drifted off leaving students to do worksheets, that he dreaded attending it.

We saw his assignments. The truth is our boy’s grasp of English grammar was probably as good as the teacher’s. He just had a vocabulary problem, and nothing in the course helped him with that.

The test isn’t even objective in nature, leaving a great deal of room for discretion or questionable judgment in the marking. The marking is itself a bonanza for teams of teachers who get put up in hotels in Toronto and receive a handsome daily rate of pay to mark the test. But even were the test an objective machine-readable one, what would be the point of it? Teachers would only teach to the test to get students passed regardless of their understanding.

My wife tells me that forty years ago, a time of demanding grade-thirteen tests in Ontario, it was common for teachers to answer a student’s question with something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, that’s not on the test.” Some readers may have heard of the scandal in Chicago’s public schools not very long ago, desperate to improve their dismal academic results with tests, when it was discovered some teachers and principals were actually drilling students to memorize the correct answers.

If a student can pass a demanding course like Ontario high schools’ English 4U, then any sensible person would regard him or her as literate without an additional test. If courses like English 4U have been dumbed down too much in some places, they need to be toughened up. A test like the current one for literacy has no effect towards this goal.

Energy is the field in which Dalton has made his most daring jumps and flips on the high wire. He has copied the abusive American practice of pushing ethanol into gasoline. Why do I call it abusive? Because ethyl alcohol has an energy content about half that of gasoline and it is expensive to make. You don’t make any environmental advance by doing this, you only raise everyone’s costs while assuring people they’ll travel slightly less far on each fill-up and somewhat diminishing the public’s financial ability to take other meaningful environmental measures.

Then why has the U.S. government encouraged ethanol for many years? Because it provides a hidden subsidy to corn farmers as well benefiting firms like Archer Daniels Midland who process the stuff. The taxes that apply to other motor fuels are forgiven, at general taxpayers’ expense, in order to boost the incomes of corn farmers. And this is all Dalton’s initiative will do, yet we hear it tiresomely discussed as an environmental program.

Dalton’s promise of greatest potential consequence was the one to close all of Ontario’s coal-fired electricity-generating stations (about a quarter of the province’s capacity) over just a few years. This promise, if kept (and there are fleeting signs of Dalton’s recognizing the costly immensity of what he has promised), literally puts Ontario’s economic future at risk. Plentiful, dependable electricity has always been one of the attractions of Ontario for manufacturers. Now a quarter of existing capacity is to be shut down at the same time that economic growth dictates new capacity. Southern Ontario’s residential home-building industry alone has been booming, and all those homes require electricity.

Dalton is closing the coal-fired plants because of people’s concern about gases and particulate matter in the air. These are legitimate concerns and need to be addressed, but arbitrarily closing Ontario’s coal-fired plants by a certain date is not the way to go about it. First, Southern Ontario is downwind of more than a hundred coal-fired plants in the American Midwest. Closing Ontario’s plants will not clean the air. American states like Maine have precisely the same complaint about the Midwestern plants.

New types of gas-fired plants have some attractive environmental aspects. But Canada’s time of an over-abundance of gas in Alberta is coming to an end, especially with huge amounts of it committed to new extraction and upgrading facilities in the tar sands to produce synthetic crude oil. Gas prices are high.

Briefly, many months ago, Dalton talked about forty-billion dollars worth of new nuclear plants. That likely did not go down well. Nuclear plants in Ontario do not have a happy history. Some of the nuclear capacity built not all that many years ago is undergoing expensive refit. The nuclear talk receded, and we’ve been getting instead a lot of happy-child-with-a-daisy stuff about green energy. The ugly truth is that all the green projects Dalton’s government is undertaking amount to little more than demonstration projects. They cannot begin to replace the capacity of large coal-fired plants or provide for future growth.

Many so-called green projects are not all that green, although they all are expensive. Take wind-generation of electricity for example. There is nothing green about a gigantic wind farm on the shores of a lake, regularly killing flocks of birds. These are gigantic, ugly industrial projects that create miles of sterilized shoreline. The single wind turbine Torontonians see at the Exhibition grounds is not even full size, and you literally need forests of such machines to produce substantial amounts of power. Just imagine thousands of much larger ones spreading like a metal-and-concrete desert along the shores of our irreplaceable Great Lakes.

Some advocates cite places like parts of Europe, Germany for example, using this form of energy far beyond what we are doing. One fact these critics always neglect to mention is that Germany finds these machines economic because gasoline there costs twice or more what we pay. Substitution is an important principle in energy economics, and the high cost of petroleum products in Europe is reflected in other energy prices. So the high cost of things like wind power are not nearly so apparent as they would be here. Moreover, the Green Party in Europe, a powerful group there, does not like nuclear power, and that leaves not a lot of options.

If you really want to clean up the air in a place like Toronto, you must do something about all the cars that choke it with chemical fumes each day. There are ways to do this, but they all have implications for the urban sprawl that is fueling the economy of Southern Ontario. They may even have implications for the auto industry. We have yet to hear the bowing and dancing Dalton say anything much on this important subject.

The nuclear option, probably the only realistic one for replacing coal-fired capacity, is now the cause for new releases of trial balloons. Do the people of Ontario truly want a large addition to the province’s nuclear capacity? And do they understand that these plants will almost certainly be built and run largely by American firms?

No one understands the full-cycle costs of nuclear power. We have inklings that it is very expensive when the costs of permanent disposal of nuclear waste is taken into account. I wonder whether the people in Toronto – who couldn’t wait to close an ordinary garbage dump, instead sending fleets of trucks loaded with their garbage over two hundred miles to Michigan every day (talk about air pollution!) – welcome the idea of high-level nuclear waste being shipped regularly and buried somewhere in Ontario for thousands of years. You really cannot separate this problem from the idea of new nuclear capacity, although I’ve yet to hear Dalton on the subject.

Nuclear has other disadvantages, too, which must be considered. Remember the recent great blackout caused by an American firm which had not properly maintained its lines? (Perhaps one of those same firms which Dalton’s plan might bring here to operate). In some parts of the province, especially parts of the GTA, it took days to restore power. That is because nuclear plants, like those just east of the city, take a relatively long time to bring back online.

Dalton’s crackerjack marketing team is now making noises about a new form of public-private partnership to provide future improvements in Ontario’s infrastructure. Just exactly what they mean is not clear. What is clear is that the ringmaster took his pistol to a relatively minor public-private arrangement, carried over from the Conservatives, involving hospital equipment. When it came to the tolls on privately-controlled Highway 407, Dalton blasted away for weeks, loading and emptying his pistol so many times the barrel glowed. When all the noise stopped and the acrid smoke cleared, the tolls stood just where they were.

Now, after that performance, just who is going to be interested in signing up with his government on infrastructure improvements? What costly incentives is Dalton’s government prepared to give companies to get them interested? We know his minister, coyly teasing us with suggestions around this latest brainstorm, cannot intend anything like the deal for Highway 407, and he doesn’t appear to mean the traditional method of financing large public projects, bonds or debentures, instruments often purchased by the kinds of institutions, large pension funds, to which he referred. Maybe Dalton will come out shooting yet on this one.

I very much regret that the Prime Minister even partially rewarded Dalton’s shabbiest performance to date, his toe-scrunching weeks of whining about a $23 billion gap in Ontario’s financial arrangements with the federal government. Dalton only discovered this monstrous gap after the Prime Minister made concessions to Newfoundland over revenue sharing. Apparently inspired by Danny William’s success at playing petulant, destructive child taking down the national flag all over his province, Dalton thought he had found a winning formula by calling into question the country’s traditional financial arrangements.

This is what passes for provincial statesmanship now in Ontario? Where is the memory of people like John Robarts or Bill Davis, who, Conservatives though they were, several times on important matters displayed the genuine trait?

When John McCallum told the public that a good portion of what the Prime Minister had agreed with Dalton was not new funding, Dalton got upset enough to describe his words as “idiosyncratic.” My bets are on McCallum who has a doctorate in economics and who generally knows what he is talking about. He holds a portfolio one can’t see Dalton managing for a month. Idiosyncratic? That is an odd word for a politician to use, especially one standing there in tights and sequined little pants.

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