National Post Editorial
During the 1928 U.S. presidential election campaign, the Republican Party promised that after a Herbert Hoover victory, there would be “a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard, to boot.” In the ongoing Ontario election, power plants have replaced chickens. And the slogan has been reversed: Everyone’s backyard will be left power plant-free.
The latest scrapped project, a gas-fired facility located in the Ontario riding of Mississauga South, was always unpopular with local residents, for the usual NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) reasons – aesthetics, land values, health concerns. But that didn’t stop the Dalton McGuinty-led Liberals from pushing for the project. In fact, construction began earlier this year, meaning that the project cleared the myriad of bureaucratic and logistical hoops and, tellingly, environmental assessments, required to build a power plant in the province.
But local activists claim that the neighbourhood has changed since the plant was first planned in 2005, with new housing sprouting up close to the plant site. The Liberal provincial government agreed to review the plan, but construction began anyway.
And then, last weekend, with less than two weeks to go until the election, the Liberals quietly announced they would cancel the project if re-elected. Recent polls have shown that ridings in the area are at risk of slipping from the Liberals to the Progressive Conservatives, but Premier McGuinty denies that was a factor – he claims he was just responding to the “compelling argument” made by local residents (the very same arguments they’d been making for years without success).
This is not the first such questionable about-face by the Liberals. Last year, the Premier backed down on a power plant in Oakville, 45 minutes west of Toronto. The details were broadly similar – a (much larger) gas-fired power plant was scheduled to be built in a populated area, the locals opposed it, but the McGuinty Liberals insisted it would have to be built, regardless. They said Ontario needed the power badly, and promised that the plant, thanks to advances in technology, would produce little in the way of harmful emissions. The public was outraged, protests were held and petitions signed. Still, the Premier defended the plant and insisted it would be built.
Until, suddenly, he changed his mind.
It had become increasingly clear that the Liberals would lose Oakville if they continued to press for the plant (the local Liberal MPP had already broken with his government to oppose it). The plant was abruptly cancelled – so abruptly, that the Premier was forced to admit he simply did not know how much the province would owe in cancellation fees. There hadn’t been time to check.
Reversals such as these are hard to credit to last-minute conversions to the cause of the people. When pressed on the sudden about-face on the Oakville plant by our editorial board last week, the Premier said: “There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.” Granted. But isn’t it wrong to spend years, as well as millions of dollars in development costs, advocating a position to which the government isn’t truly committed?
The proposed cancellation of the Mississauga plant marks another milestone in the evolution of Premier McGuinty’s position on power-project construction. As recently as 2009, he was railing against NIMBYism and saying he wouldn’t let it stop him. “We’re going to say to Ontarians that it’s okay to object on the basis of safety issues and environmental standards; if you have real concerns there, put those forward and we must find a way to address those,” McGuinty said then. “But don’t say, ‘I don’t want it around here’ . NIMBYism will no longer prevail.”
It looks like, under Mr. McGuinty, NIMBYism is prevailing after all.