The premier, the power plant, and the people

So McGuinty scrapped the plant. In a democracy, the voters have the last word.


Chris Young/CP

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby-Simon Fellow at Yale Law School. He was chief speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff and served as a senior aide in the McGuinty government. Follow him on Twitter at @adamgoldenberg.

Ontario’s premier is in a pickle.

Nine months ago, Dalton McGuinty was gunning for his third mandate, in the final days of a campaign he had been expected to lose. Four seats could make the difference, and precisely that many hung in the balance between Mississauga and Etobicoke—where the Liberals’ plan to build a gas-fired power plant had proved as popular as coal at Christmas.

So they scrapped it, and won a third term.

That decision, it was revealed last week, will come at a cost of $180 million—a price to be paid by taxpayers, ratepayers, or both. The government is unapologetic and the opposition apoplectic—even though, had they prevailed at the polls, they would have done the same.

Their hysteria is misplaced. If we are scandalized whenever politicians make costly promises to appeal to particular voters, then we may as well throw in the towel on democracy itself.

Our parliamentary system is comprised of single-member districts, whose representatives are accountable to their constituents. If the government makes a decision of which voters disapprove, they complain to their elected officials—who either respond to or ignore them at their peril.

In Mississauga, the system worked. The government made a decision—in this case, to build a power plant. The voters disapproved, and they said so. The government listened, if belatedly, and changed course. The voters approved. The Liberals were re-elected.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the decision; cancelling the power plant will be costly, for one thing, and possibly inefficient for Ontario’s power grid in the long run. Construction continued long after Election Day, at an as-yet-unknown cost to the public.

But these are quarrels of substance, not form; they question the decision, not why it was made. To take issue with the latter—as opposition politicians and various pundits are now doing—is to argue with some of the basic facts of democracy itself.

Politicians make political decisions. We expect them to put the public interest ahead of their own, but until they get themselves elected, they are all but powerless to do so. Voters, meanwhile, may cast their ballots on whatever basis they choose; we do not require each other to make nuanced judgments about public policy when we go to the polls. Representative democracy works because politicians’ fortunes are tied directly to their constituents’ wishes, whatever they are. If MPPs ignore the people who sent them to Queen’s Park, they will not last long. And if respecting the will of the people helps a few elected officials keep their jobs, so be it.

Still, some politicians make hay by refusing to take populist positions on local issues. For two terms, and on the clean energy file in particular, Mr. McGuinty was one of them. To his credit, he nobly made the case against NIMBYism—“not in my backyard” sentiment—at his own political expense.

In his fourth campaign, he made an exception. But even if the think tanks and policy experts do not approve of his lapse, their votes are ultimately worth no more than those of the Mississauga residents who relentlessly opposed a power plant in their neighbourhood, and won.

Yes, the Liberals could have listened sooner, and scrapped their power-plant plans before the eleventh hour. Or Mr. McGuinty could have doubled down against NIMBYism, and repackaged the power plant as proof of his political courage.

But courage is little consolation to an unemployed ex-premier. Mr. McGuinty had to make a call, and he sided with the people—and his local candidates—over principle. In all fairness, so did his opponents.

The moral here is a simple truism: in a democracy, the voters have the last word. We should expect good policy, and demand it at the polls. But in the end, it cannot be a scandal when the voters say clearly what they want—and our representatives do as they say.



The premier, the power plant, and the people

  1. “But in the end, it cannot be a scandal when the voters say clearly what they want—and our representatives do as they say.”

    I guess the Conservatives are scandal-free then? Are you saying the protests against scrapping the long-gun registry, the omnibus crime bill, scrapping voter subsidies, et cetera are anti-democratic? You can apologize and spin all you want, but it’s still bad policy.

  2. But these are quarrels of substance, not form; they question the decision, not why it was made.


    I’m at a loss. I don’t see a single argument of “form” in this entire piece, before or after this sentence. Certainly the reason a decision is made (motivation) isn’t a matter of “form”. The term “substance over form” is a legal maxim the author may have come across in his studies, but it isn’t applicable to the siutation in the broad or narrow sense.

    Worse yet, I think Iggy’s reputation is poor enough in this country without his chief speechwriter making arguments that come close to “But you’re focusing on the important matters, why, what’s important is to look at the TRIVIALTIES. (Now to end with the bard, as one does….”

  3. I love the irony in the “coal at Christmas” comparison, given that gas and wind is all in an effort to help get rid of coal fired plants that kill and make people sick. Anyway, good article. Democracy in action. The government listened to a majority. It’s those who think the government should listen to a boisterously loud minority when democracy goes awry.

    • The issue here is that the “majority” only got listened to when there were seats at stake. Had the government really been listening, they would never have broken ground on the project. This sort of thing happens all the time regardless of who is in power, but how can they be so tone deaf as to not grasp how bad the optics are on this one. Especially since everyone is preaching “restraint” these days. I think Premier Hudak would be a nightmare that would set Ontario back years, but Dalton is well past his “best by” date, and it will be another couple of generations before Ontarians, whether rightly or wrongly, trust the NDP to form another government. Personally, I’m pretty tired of going into the voting booth, holding my nose and voting for the “least bad” option.

  4. Nice try at political spin – but no sale.
    Hey, McGuinty was just pleasing the voters – that’s politics!
    The cancelled plant is a win for the people!
    McGuinty, faced with the real threat of losing a majority caved in to NIMBYS to save seats at the 11th hour of an election.
    On the other hand, if the whole idea was to “listen to the people” all the Libs had to do was announce that, if re-elected, they would cancel the Mississauga plant at a cost of $180M and re-locate it elsewhere, because the “people have spoken”.
    The PCs and the NDP could have offered up what their plans were and the voters would have chosen.
    If the Libs carried the day in those ridings then they could rightly say the people have spoken.
    Have to admit it though, Mr. Goldenberg’s version almost makes Dalton sound a real stand-up guy whose only concern is the well-fare of his happy Ontario constituents.
    For a split second one could almost forget the long tortured trail of lies and scandal that have dogged this government since Day 1.

    • Heck, I really like Dalton but if he was listening to the people of the riding the project never would have gotten started, let alone cancelled.

    • Ummm… isn’t that what he did? And what the article is saying?

      • Not really.
        By making the cancellation a $180M campaign promise then all Ontarians – who have to pay the $180M – would have had a say at the polls. That’s a bit more democratic than simply buying seats.

  5. Nice try Adam. This is why McGuinty is known as the ‘teflon’ premier. Everyone gives him a pass and makes excuses for him, no matter how egregious or criminal his behaviour.

    If this was merely a case of a politician listening to the will of the people then industrial wind turbines would be built all along the GTA shoreline from Hamilton to Oshawa and not destroying extremely valuable and necessary farmland.

    Rural Ontarians have been complaining for years about the assault on our world-recognized biosphere (Bruce Peninsula), fragile ecosystems (Ostranders Point) and farmland.

    McGuinty not only turns a deaf ear, but brings in a law that reduces rural residents to 3rd class status, by telling them that our ecosystems are worthless, our quality of life is unimportant and no one give a damn about our homes and our health. Unfortunately when it comes to egocentric Toronto, he’s right.

    So Dalton panders to the Torontonians and thumbs his nose at rural Ontario because he knows where the largest number of votes come from. And if it adds 180 million + to the debt that my grandchildren and their children will have to pay, McGuinty and his sheeple shrug and say, “So what?”

    • Interesting. I’m not discounting the problem here, at all. I’m just a little confused when you say the stuff about the biosphere and ecosystems because of a windmill, but think nothing of a nuclear power plant, and expanding same. I’m not against nuclear power plants, either, but I think I’d be more concerned (for those same reasons) about the nuclear than the wind. Yes, I’d also be asking myself why the Bruce has to pay either way, but that’s not what you’re asking.

      • Because we’re not discussing nuclear power in Ontario. We’re talking about McGuinty getting a pass AGAIN because he supposedly was listening to the voices of the people. Well, I guess that only applies if you live in the GTA. The rest of the province and our voices can go to hell.

        We’re held hostage to the whim of urbanites who don’t have the foggiest notion what is going on in the rest of the province.

        So the author’s point of McGuinty just listening to the people is complete BS.

        • You’ve been Hoodwinked by Hudak, m’boy! I realize rural folk are easily led by anyone in blue, but serioiusly, if you can’t argue in the context 2Jenn set out, you have to concede Dalton was right.

          • WRONG! I wouldn’t vote for Hudak either, nor Horwath. None of them, from what I’ve seen, are fit to run this once beautiful province.

            And exactly HOW was Dalton right? I’m continuously astounded at the sheeple that follow that criminal and vote him in time after time, no matter how much debt and financial ruin he sinks us into, no matter how many scandals he’s involved in.

            More and more I’m hearing people say there should be a federal investigation into the provincial Liberals and they should all be thrown in jail for their mismanagement of the important job they were given to responsibly look after Ontario and its residents.

            Instead, he focusses his attention to the whiny babies in the GTA.

            Here’s an important question for all of you McGuinty babes…..what’s your opinion on the 2300 acre mega quarry that is going in north of Toronto, that will divert 600 million litres of water A DAY (in perpetuity) from the Great Lakes and 4 major waterways? Hmmm???

            Don’t know anything about it, do you?


          • I admit I’ve only read a couple of articles on the quarry, I remember feeling a bit let down.

            But this still doesn’t address the we’re too important for evil windmills but full steam on the nuclear power plants business mentioned by JanBC.
            As for getting a pass – I’m not sure people are taken in by Goldenberg here. At least two of the parties were trying to win in Mississauga by oppoing the power plant, good idea or not. Definitely a last minute change to appeal to a small set of voters.

          • I wasn’t intending on turning this into a commentary on the uselessness of wind, but if windmills are so great, why aren’t they blanketing the shores from Hamilton to Oshawa the same way they are on the shores of the other Great Lakes? For all of the billions and billions of dollars that we have sunk into useless wind energy, on the hottest days last week, when the demand topped 22,000 MW, wind contributed only 77.

            We’ve sacrificed so much precious land and wasted all of that money for 77 MW. Meanwhile, according to Forbes, “Wind is the most material intensive energy source requiring ten times more steel, copper and cement per MWhr than any other source.” — talk about a carbon footprint!!!!
            As well, over the past few years, Ontario has PAID the States and Quebec to take our excess power off our hands.

            Our resources would be put to far better use if we were to put it towards something that really is green, efficient and reliable. Wind energy is just another of Dalton’s fiascos that have given us next to nothing in return for all of our taxpayer dollars spent.

  6. If Goldenberg ever runs for office remember this apologist rationalization for waste.

    Amortized over 40 years, this will cost our children and grand children over $400. million.

    I call this column not just “spin” but a clouded and myopic vision of partisan politics. It is not just waste it is corruption.

  7. So here’s my question: As the project was cancelled to satisfy four ridings, can we put a surcharge on residents of those four ridings to pay for the $180 million? Not sure why the rest of the province should have to foot the bill for their NIMBYism.

    • The rest of the province ALWAYS has to pay for whatever Toronto wants. As far as I’m concerned every single person who voted in this corrupt criminal should have to open their wallets and pay for the massive astronomical debt this fool and his goons have created for us.

  8. Adam is as partisan a Liberal as exists in Canada, as anyone who follows his twitter stream can attest. And here he is “reporting” on a Liberal politician, and one he worked for, no less. Unsurprisingly, he offers a defense befitting his legal education.
    Is this a joke? What did you expect him to write? Why not eliminate the middle man next time? Get Liberal HQ to fax you their defense and run it verbatim, it could hardly be more partisan but at least it would be transparent. You fail, Maclean’s.

  9. There is a difference between making a decision in the middle of an election by unelected back room boys, and making a decision when Parliament is in session. Yes, everyone said they would cancel the plant but how many intended to keep that promise. Only McGuinty knew that he would win those ridings by the cancellation. Strangely enough McGuinty doesn’t seem to have a problem slamming down on NIMBYism when it shows up in a Conservative riding.

  10. I’m not sure why Adam Goldenberg was trying to defecnd Mcguinty.Looks like both the fellows are chips of the same old block, lies,lies and lies, ZERO integrity. Mcguinty does not look to be an honest Canadian nor a true Ontarian. If so he would not have screwed this province out and out Being a broke he would ask hard working ontarians to go for the pay freeze, compel the professionals to move out of the province, but easily dole out in Millions to “Power Thugs”. And at the and he would defend his crappiest record as premier and say Ontario is the best place to live. No wonder he ranks the lowest amongst the premiers

  11. Good article; Thanks!

  12. This man is sickening, nauseating, revolting, scandalous, hideous, corrupt, on the take, win at any cost, amoral, Machiavellian, and deleterious to the fiscal health of the province of Ontario.

  13. McGuinty IGNORED the people. The ONLY reason why the gas plants were moved was to save a few seats and the taxpayer is paying through the nose for his last minute decision.

    • Since that was exactly what the people of Mississauga and Etobicoke wanted, clearly he listened to the people. Or is your argument that the people of Mississauga and Etobicoke are not also people?