The Speech from the Throne on March 19 and the provincial budget on March 28 mark the unofficial start of Ontario’s election campaign. Ontarians are bound to witness recriminations, hyperbole and bare-knuckle politics between now and election day on June 7. We’ll inevitably hear that Kathleen Wynne is corrupt, Andrea Horwath is a radical and Doug Ford is a Trumpian candidate.

But we should expect more than this. Ontario faces a number of opportunities and challenges, ranging from an aging population to growing global competition to income and wealth inequality to poverty and homelessness. The list goes on. These are big issues and they require big thinking. Ontarians should demand nothing less as we debate the right governing agenda for our province over the coming weeks and months.

It’s not sufficient to have the usual kind of election campaign about personalities, wedge issues and poll-driven proposals. Public polling shows that the Ontario electorate is unsettled. There’s a general demand for change but also uncertainty about what that entails. Likewise, there’s uncertainty about which is the best party to address the province’s short- and long-term challenges. The pending campaign and its ensuing policy debate should bring clarity to these questions rather than more confusion.

People say that an election is no time to discuss serious issues. We disagree. An election should focus the public’s attention on key issues and enable a constructive dialogue about priorities, trade-offs and public policy. It’s an opportunity for broad-based engagement on the collective issues that our societies will face in the short and long terms.

Party policies remain an important ingredient in this process even in an era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. There aren’t many true issues-based voters among us. The evidence shows that most people tend to be drawn to a particular candidate and party on the basis of an overall assessment in which policy is only one measure of voter preference. But research finds that policy differences are a key input into this electoral calculus.

Ontario’s political parties therefore owe it to voters to set out clear, concrete ideas on the range of issues confronting the province. It’s not enough to critique one another or speak in general terms about their respective agendas. People want to know where the parties stand and about the policies they’ll enact to respond to the opportunities and challenges facing Ontario. They want clarity, specificity and ideas rooted in evidence and analysis.

Yet it’s not always easy for political parties that lack resources and capacity to develop and design such public policies. This is far from a criticism. Estimating a policy’s fiscal costs or the number of possible beneficiaries or the distributional effects or interaction with other policies can involve complex modelling and analysis. There are few options for political parties that need assistance or support carrying out this work. This represents a gap in our democratic infrastructure, in our view.

Different jurisdictions have various means and methods for supporting policy development by political parties. Some, such as the United Kingdom, publicly fund policy and research capacity within political parties. Others, such as Germany, publicly fund think tanks with clear affiliations to political parties.

The federal government has expanded the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to support fiscal costing on behalf of the major political parties in the lead-up to the 2019 election. Nothing presently exists along these lines at the provincial level.

The University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance has launched a new initiative to try to fill this gap. The Ontario 360 project aims to develop and disseminate evidence-based public policy ideas in the context of the upcoming Ontario campaign and the post-election transition.

We’re drawing upon a diverse group of scholars and policy experts to put forward concrete policy recommendations for the various political parties and ultimately the next Ontario government. These policies will come in the form of 30 short commentaries over 30 days starting on April 1. We’ll cover a wide range of topics relevant to Ontario, including taxes, climate change, early childhood education, transit, economic competitiveness and the opioid crisis.

The overall output will be an inventory of evidence-based policy recommendations for Ontario. We hope that the political parties, the Ontario public service and other policy voices (including readers of Policy Options) will engage with Ontario 360’s ideas and recommendations. This will involve challenging and testing them, refining them based on preferences or needs and hopefully adopting them as part of an evidence-based policy agenda for the province. Think of it as “open-source” policies rooted in evidence and rigorous analysis and available to anyone interested in Ontario public policy — including, of course, the incoming government.

We see Ontario 360’s principal role as contributing to a constructive policy-oriented dialogue from now through election day and into the transition period. We look forward to a rigorous debate over the coming weeks. May the best ideas win!

Photo: Ontario Lt.-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell delivers her Speech from the Throne at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday, March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young.

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Sean Speer
Sean Speer is the co-director of the Ontario 360 project and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Peter Loewen
Peter Loewen is a professor at the University of Toronto and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

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