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Ontario's 2012 Budget: "Meh."

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If you ever want to see photographic proof of the world revolving around Ontario, I highly advise checking out this charming video from the Toronto Star. "We're inside the Ontario budget lock-up," announces Queen's Park bureau chief Robert Benzie, as the camera pans to reveal an oak-lined holding pen so impossibly packed with reporters that even a full panoramic shot can't possibly hope to capture them all.

A little self-indulgent, perhaps, but still great news for a Canadian press-watcher, since it practically guarantees anyone who's anyone in our nation's wonderfully Ontario-centric media establishment will have lots of feisty things to say. Folks tend to get most riled up about the mess in their own backyard, after all.

And lo, what a mess it is! In the words of Jeffrey Simpson, the decade-long decline of Ontario from the sleek, well-oiled province that bails others out and acts as the corporate engine of Confederation to $214-billion-in-hock, perennially deficit-saddled, equalization-hogging rust bucket may be "the most fundamental shift of economic strength within Canada since oil was discovered in Alberta."

Expectations were thus fairly high this week that Premier Dalton McGuinty and his loveable understudy, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, would finally show some signs of appreciating the sheer magnitude of the fiscal dilemma facing their province, after having spent the majority of their tenure somewhat... indifferent. Or, as the Toronto Sun unambiguously put it: "McGuinty, having spent the province into a black hole since 2003, now assures us he can get us out of his mess."

Yet to say the premier's budget -- which promises balanced books by 2017 -- received a tepid response from the pundit-ocracy is to grossly exaggerate its warmth. The National Post and Globe and Mail, for instance, clearly fought an all-out arms race to see who could come up with the most nonchalant endorsement headline (Post: "Better than Nothing;" Globe: "At Least It's a Start").

In a word, the mainstream consensus was "meh."

We can blame at least some of the frosty reception on an excessive abundance of foreplay. Even way out here in Vancouver I've heard reverent murmurs about a sacred document known as the Drummond Report, which is, from what I've been able to gather, some manner of holy budget-balancing instruction manual that descended from the heavens straight into Premier McGuinty's lap sometime last month. It whispered to cut pointless spending. And fire superfluous teachers. And restructure the health care system. It was like getting the answer key on test day! Things couldn't be easier for the Liberals, right?

Or not! Andrew Coyne says the McGuinty budget "seems to go out of its way to thumb its nose at Drummond," and perhaps predictably, since the oracle called for dumping a lot of wasteful pet projects -- like all-day daycare and electricty subsidies -- that were particularly near and dear to the Premier's heart. 

Economic journalism is so dry it tends to provoke a lot of good metaphors to liven things up, and Coyne talks about how McGuinty's budget was too cowardly to even lance the "lowest of the low-hanging fruit" of state largess, while the editorial board of the Ottawa Citizen observes bitterly how the government's "sacred cows continue to graze contentedly."

Of course, the world looks a little different to our friends on the left. Where conservative John Ivision sees a "Vanilla Revolution," Adam Radwanski at the Globe sees "a sharp rightward turn with the toughest budget [Ontario] has seen in a generation." Over at the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom says this whole business of deficit-cutting is basically just "Herbert Hoover" economics. Both Walkom and Ivision agree, however, that the budget's heaviest toll will disproportionately fall upon rural Ontarians, whose schools and hospitals and prions and horse tracks will be shut down, and who also don't tend to vote Liberal very often, which is kind of a fun coincidence.

For all his fiscal failings, there is a case to be made that poor Premier McGuinty is merely a product of Canada's larger civic culture, which increasingly does not reward (and indeed, actively demonizes) risk-takers, creative thinkers, and bold visions. It makes an obsessively moderated approach to problem solving -- which is, as the Citizen put it, "more about tweaking than it is about making fundamental change" -- the inevitably uninspired outcome, and guarantees our country's most serious problems will be oft-lamented, but rarely close to being solved.

By keeping their complaints airy, abstract, and cynical, the press enables this smallness of thinking as much as anyone. Even the conservative pundits, despite their bluster about McGuinty's cowardice and butt-covering, haven't been particularly forthright in identifying which of Ontario's vast constellation of beloved social programs they'd be salivating to slash or privatize if given the chance.

It's for this reason that Jeffrey Simpson deserves kudos for being one of the province's few commentators to actually suggest an alternate course of action amidst his pooh-poohing. Granted, he just wants to hike everyone's taxes, but hey, at least it's something.

CORRECTION: The blog previously stated the Ontario budget video was shot by the Toronto Sun. It was in fact the Toronto Star.