Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa was on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday, talking about the spat with Ottawa on funding for the Big Move transit plan. On one side, Ontario – through Metrolinx – has raised the idea of hiking the HST in the GTA to pay for transit expansion. On the other side is the federal government and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s letter to Sousa, which basically says you can’t have different HST rates across regions in Ontario. Sousa had a great opportunity to define the issue, but his approach was the wrong one.

Flaherty’s letter was simply an opportunistic political message (“We did not lower the GST to have it taken away from Ontarians by the Wynne government with a news sales tax hike.”) meant to put the Ontario government on the back foot. Sousa’s response – as manifested during this radio interview and elsewhere – was to engage in the debate on Flaherty’s terms and avoid talking about the bigger imperative: making sure the public understands that taxes are how we’re going to pay for badly-needed transit expansion.

Charles Sousa (Image: National Post)

In taking Flaherty’s bait, Sousa’s strategy seemed to be made up of two key messages:

1. Backing away from Metrolinx’s recommendations and saying “we didn’t ask to raise the HST,” or “That’s not what we’re suggesting,” over and over. This is an understandable minor message, but one that – as it was constantly repeated – started to take on the tenor of a recreational athlete complaining to a referee.  Maybe he was worried about how Ontarians were feeling after media coverage of a list of possible “non-tax revenues” generated by Ontario bureaucrats.

2. Avoiding any mention of transit and instead promoting partnership between levels of government, getting everyone at the table – Flaherty in particular – and having a conversation about making the lives of Ontarians better. In fact, Sousa did not once mention the word “transit” and only made one passing reference to the Big Move. Instead, he threw out the words “gridlock” and “competitiveness” and talked relentlessly about “capital infrastructure”. He sounded less like a smart guy trying to explain to a mostly liberal and urban radio audience why we need to consider all possible sources of revenue for transit, and more like a typical politician regurgitating his talking points. He even used the term “going forward”.

I was left with the impression that Ontario’s finance minister was more interested in making nice with Jim Flaherty (low odds on that succeeding) than he was in reinforcing the idea that we need to find a way of paying for transit. Too bad Sousa missed the opportunity to more clearly explain what he was asking for, and what benefits citizens would get in return.

Sure, getting voters to understand and engage on taxes for better transit and less gridlock is not an easy task. It carries political risks, but the alternative path – shying away from any mention of taxes and benefits and letting growth overwhelm us – is the same path to nowhere we’ve been on for decades. And isn’t that what Kathleen Wynne has been saying for months?