April 3, 2014 – The future of Ontario’s economy was front and centre at the Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce’s annual general meeting in early April. Former Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was the keynote speaker at the luncheon hosted by Johnson Inc. and held at the Quality Hotel and Conference Centre. Mr. Duncan spoke about his concerns but believes the future isn’t as gloomy as some are predicting.
Pictured right: Neil J. Macdonald, vice president of corporate affairs, general counsel and secretary of General Motors Canada, was in attendance at the Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce’s annual general meeting in April. Macdonald awarded Dwight Duncan a trophy made from a Cadillac XTS steering wheel – built in Oshawa, of course in recognition of his work during the GM debt crisis in 2009. The trophy bears the words of former premier Dalton McGuinty: “Dwight’s steady hand has set our province on a sure path.” Macdonald added, “Without your leadership, we may very well not have had a company.”
Duncan spoke about Ontario today and where the economy is today and what sorts of things we should be concerned about. He noted real growth in the economy is not as robust as we would like to see noting its not going to be the way it was in the 1990’s but it will be real growth. He would like to see more growth and more job creation but is seeing a transformation in the economy in many parts of Ontario “that is big”. During his political career he was at the helm of the province’s finances when the 2008-09 auto crisis broke out. The crisis had frightening implications for cities like Windsor and Oshawa, where the automotive industry is still a huge economic driver. Duncan became lead negotiator for the province. What followed were meetings with the automakers, his federal counterpart and Whitby-Oshawa MP Jim Flaherty.“Our politics are very different but it was always a pleasure to speak with him,” says Duncan. “Within four weeks our governments…were able to draft the deals.”
Duncan remains optimistic look at a what happening in Oshawa. “When I look at Oshawa, and I see what’s been going on over the last 10 years, I think you’re doing everything you need to do,” says Duncan. “Automotive is still very important, manufacturing is very important, but moving away from traditional manufacturing to education, health care, energy and the emphasis on entrepreneurialism, new businesses, there’s just that sense of a dynamism in the economy here that I think is serving the area well.”
In early April Finance Minister Sousa released a report that showed an aging population and slower labour force growth will contribute to sluggish economic growth over the next two decades. While Duncan agreed that may be today’s outlook, he cautioned you can’t predict that far into the future. “The last long term document with 20 year predictions was two years before the greatest recession since the great depression and that wasn’t predicted,” Duncan stated. “Any economic prediction that goes beyond a year is really just guessing.”
One of the other main themes of Duncan’s speech was debt, and what Ontario should be doing to rein it in.
Five different governments led by three different parties have effectively doubled Ontario’s liabilities,” says Duncan. “We all did it,” he admits.
But what will really hurt the province, explains its former finance minister, is interest payment on the debt. When interest rates increase, they will cost the province hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I first started saying these things when I was the finance minister of Ontario but they need to be repeated,” says Duncan. “That is a threat. What I’m worried about is none of our political parties are addressing it.”
One way of addressing it is selling off government assets, he told the audience. Duncan says the government should “get out of owning” Ontario Power Generation, Hydro One, the LCBO and OLG.
With a budget expected in early May, Duncan offered some words of advice to the Minister, “keep doing what your doing and balance the budget and give entrepreneurs and others the opportunity to invest and bring ideas to work for that is where future growth is going to come from.”
Duncan was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1995, and served until February 2013. He was minister of finance twice, from 2005 to 2006 and from 2007 to 2013. He was also deputy premier, minister of government services, revenue and energy during his time in government.
He is now working as a senior strategic advisor at McMillan LLP and as a special advisor to the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS).