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Weak regulations won’t make a strong Ontario

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When former Premier Mike Harris closed public water-testing labs, he told private labs they didn’t have to report ominous test results to municipalities. The Walkerton water disaster resulted. Seven people died, and 2,300 became seriously ill.

When a propane explosion in Toronto last fall killed two people and forced 12,000 from their homes, critics blamed lax safety rules. The McGuinty government responded, correctly, with a new and stronger regulation on propane storage.

Laws and regulations are key tools in any democracy, and they’re about more than health and safety. They help us define the kind of society we want.

Laws and regulations decide how fair (or unfair) our workplaces are. They decide what economic activities will thrive (or not thrive). They make sure citizens’ interests are protected – as consumers, as taxpayers, as renters, as homeowners, as voters, and so on.

In the United States, excess deregulation was a root cause of the current recession. All those Wall Street deals that turned out to be scams are now hurting everybody. Little wonder that President Obama plans to bring in tough new regulations for traders.

In this context, it’s more than a little strange that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has launched a new push to cut regulation in Ontario. Under the heading “Open for Business,” McGuinty says every ministry must cut regulations by at least 25 per cent. No ministry can ask for a new regulation, no matter how important, unless it removes two others.

McGuinty says this won’t put public safety at risk. I should hope not. But it’s hard to see how arbitrary targets pulled out of the air are going to save our economy. And if a regulation could be cut, chances are Mike Harris cut it. (From 1995 on, his “Red Tape Commission” wiped out 2,100 regulations that business didn’t like.)

South of the border, Obama hopes to not just save the U.S. economy, but transform it. One tool he will use? Regulation. For example, his Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize winner Stephen Chu, notes that high standards for refrigerator efficiency in the U.S. mean the average fridge now costs half of what it used to and uses only one-third the electricity. All because of regulation.

Good regulations are no obstacle to business success. Indeed, they can spur innovation. They can be the scaffolding on which we build tomorrow’s economy. Hacking away at regulation is a strategy from the past, not the future.

Open for Business is supposed to be accountable and transparent, but so far ministry targets (set on Dec. 1, 2008) have not been made public. Neither have the first ministry progress reports, due three weeks ago. We will be pressing the government to maintain an open process.

Above all, we will be urging Mr. McGuinty to recognize that weak regulations will never make a strong Ontario.

In solidarity,

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President

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