Turbulence for Liberals in rural areas
by Greg Van Moorsel, London Free Press
It was one year ago that Chris Bentley won the cabinet booby prize after helping the McGuinty Liberals eke out a minority government.
Make peace with rural Ontario.
The London MPP was one of only four Grits left standing between Windsor and the Toronto area after last fall’s election cut the Liberals’ 70-seat majority to 53 seats.
Bentley went from attorney general to energy minister. From the government’s chief legal counsel, a dream job for any lawyer, he got stuck on point for the issue that cost the Liberals the farm — their slavish drive to force industrial wind turbines onto countrysides that don’t want them.
It didn’t help that the Liberals held no serious debate before embarking on their strategy, nor that they seized local control over where the often-unwanted turbines can be built.
With Premier Dalton McGuinty now on his long goodbye and the legislature shut down until Liberals choose a replacement in three months, it’s fair to say the government still hasn’t bridged that post-election, rural-urban divide aggravated by its green energy policies. It will have to do better if it wants to cling to power after McGuinty leaves.
From only 10 wind turbines in 2003, when the Grits took office, Ontario now has more than 1,200 of the behemoths. With signed deals, that could more than double soon. Counting others on the boards, some critics see up to 6,400 turbines on the horizon.
Court challenges, blighted landscapes, worries about human health and property values, even town hall meetings where cops have been called in. The red-hot temperature in rural Ontario has far from cooled since the election. And that’s leaving aside off-shore turbines in the Great Lakes, a file so politically toxic the government has deep-sixed it for now.
Adding insult to injury, the Grits have now stuck rural zones with the two Toronto-area gas plants they quietly killed — at a cost of at least $230 million, in a scandal that may yet get worse — after deciding they were too much for sensitive urban eyes and snouts.
The bottom line?
A party that never truly got rural buy-in for its energy strategy will have no choice but to get it now. Ontario is not so urban that you can easily govern it without rural backing.
None of the wind farms is in metro Toronto or Ottawa, big cities that make up the Liberal base. And a single big-city turbine, like the one at Toronto’s CNE, doesn’t come close to the forests of them sprouting in rural areas, some only hundreds of metres from homes.
Even smaller cities with hold-out Grits — London, Windsor, Kingston — don’t easily see the towering monstrosities. They’re out of sight, out of mind. And that’s the problem for Bentley, as energy minister, and for any Liberal considering a run at McGuinty’s job.
Not all of the government’s energy strategy is so polarizing.
Take its vow — repeatedly broken — to shut Ontario’s coal-fired power plants. They’re among eastern Canada’s worst greenhouse gas emitters. They’ve burned mountains of cheap Appalachian coal, the continent’s dirtiest, and left enough ash to fill valleys. They should all be toast.
Even employing laid-off workers in a new industry building wind turbines isn’t so farfetched, but first you need a willing market.
Which is partly why industrial giant Samsung still hasn’t delivered the jobs promised under its sweetheart $6-billion deal with Ontario.
Switching off rural Ontario cost the Liberals a third majority government. If they want it back, they’ll have to find ways to plug in a huge area they ripped from the power supply.