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Opinion

In politics, no good deed goes unpunished

By Susan Riley      

It is something to think about the next time you enjoy some shady park, or quiet beach, or lakeside boardwalk—or even breath in surprisingly fresh summer air. It takes politicians, and bureaucrats, with vision, shrewdness, and community support to beat back the greedy, self-interested, banal armies of the status quo.

The people of southern Ontario and parts of Quebec owe former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty a heartfelt thank you. Partly because of action his government took in 2013, namely, the closure of a large, coal-fired electricity plant on Lake Erie, this sweltering summer has featured no smog days so far. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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CHELSEA, QUE.—The people of southern Ontario and parts of Quebec owe former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty a heartfelt thank you. Partly because of action his government took in 2013—namely, the closure of a large, coal-fired electricity plant on Lake Erie—this sweltering summer has featured no smog days so far.
In fact, smog days—once a feature of hot summers in Central Canada; the bane of the elderly, asthmatics, runners, and most city dwellers—are mostly a thing of the past. It wasn’t only the McGuinty government’s decision to banish coal-fired electricity generation that cleared the air, but this single act is seen as the most significant individual move by any Canadian government in reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter in the atmosphere.

Some of that venom splashed on to his successor, Kathleen Wynne, and she, too, was punished at the polls last month—as much for the sins of the McGuinty government, as for her own policy wobbles. The Hill Times file photograph

For his troubles, McGuinty left politics in 2013 widely reviled. Some of that venom splashed on to his successor, Kathleen Wynne, and she, too, was punished at the polls last month—as much for the sins of the McGuinty government, as for her own policy wobbles. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find anyone outside his immediate family willing to give McGuinty the time of day much less a high-five.
That’s partly because the former premier’s attempt to move Ontario into a cleaner, greener future—based on more wind and solar and less fossil fuel—was so costly to individual Ontarians and so poorly managed. Turns out there weren’t enough customers for that new green power, so it sold at a terrific loss; turns out many rural communities did not like wind turbines forced upon them; turns out, too, that the jobs created in the new industry did not compensate for the jobs lost elsewhere in the economy. And electricity rates for average homeowners sky-rocketed.
That, and some sleazy political manoeuvring by top staffers over McGunity’s decision to close two proposed gas plants—a decision that cost taxpayers $585-million and was supported by both Conservatives and New Democrats at the time—sealed his fate. Who cares about smog when money is at stake?
To this day, right-wing critics, like the Fraser Institute, claim the closure of the Nanticoke plant had little bearing on lower smog levels; they were the product of stricter U.S. regulations, says the Vancouver-based think-tank. But the institute fails to note that McGuinty’s government also introduced tough requirements for industrial polluters. And, that Ontario was the first jurisdiction in North America to phase out coal.
Some day, McGuinty will be honoured for that—just as former federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion will be recognized for his balanced, forward-looking Green Shift, which proposed putting a price on polluting activity, and investing some of that money in clean alternatives while cushioning the most vulnerable from increased energy costs. But Dion’s stuttering delivery and an amateurish video appearance doomed both his political career and the Green Shift.

Few politicians were as deeply despised as Brian Mulroney when he left politics in 1993—for his cloying sanctimony, the sketchy company he sometimes kept, and his slavish devotion to American power. Yet he enjoyed a rebirth as a green pioneer, largely thanks to an acid rain treaty he signed with then-president George H.W. Bush in 1991. The Hill Times file photograph

Few politicians were as deeply despised as Brian Mulroney when he left politics in 1993—for his cloying sanctimony, the sketchy company he sometimes kept, and his slavish devotion to American power. Yet he enjoyed a rebirth as a green pioneer, largely thanks to an acid rain treaty he signed with then-president George H.W. Bush in 1991. That pact greatly reduced sulphur emissions that were killing Canadian lakes and was opposed, at the time, by the usual suspects. It would be ruinous to the Canadian mining sector; it would drive jobs and investment elsewhere; it would impoverish northern towns, said so-called “pro-business” lobbyists. It did nothing of the kind and Mulroney deserves credit for persisting.
Every good idea—that is, every idea that improves the public sphere, protects the built and natural environment, preserves the historic and human-sized in growing cities—is opposed by people who think only of money. Douglas Fullerton, chairman of the National Capital Commission in 1971, overcame the objections of local business and Ottawa City Council in turning the Rideau Canal into a five-kilometre skating rink, a daring idea in a buzz-kill government town.
The city fathers of the day wanted to pave the historic waterway and turn it into an expressway. Fullerton ignored them and some 50,000 Ottawans showed up for the first weekend of skating. Since then, the 7.8 kilometre Rideau Skateway has become the major tourist attraction and revenue generator.
Earlier, in 1945, French planner Jacques Greber was asked by then prime minister Mackenzie King to devise a plan for the still incubating capital city. Greber proposed a belt of green around the outskirts to slow urban sprawl and it survives to this day—a speed bump rather than a break on rampant development, but a well-used recreation corridor that takes cyclists, skiers, dog-walkers from one end of the city to another, through forests, wetlands, and farm fields. It was a gift to the future and has, for the most part, survived many attempts since by short-sighted builders, and their political spear-carriers, to carve off tracts.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford mused about opening Toronto’s greenbelt to more housing during the recent election, but relented in the face of an immediate and passionate public backlash. He may be more open to the idea now that he has been elected; he doesn’t appear have any particular concern for, or interest in, environmental conservation.
It is something to think about the next time you enjoy some shady park, or quiet beach, or lakeside boardwalk—or even breath in surprisingly fresh summer air. It takes politicians, and bureaucrats, with vision, shrewdness, and community support to beat back the greedy, self-interested, banal armies of the status quo.
Unfortunately, they don’t get the undying gratitude they deserve until after they are gone. Long gone.They deserve our undying gratitude after they are long gone.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
The Hill Times 

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