JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
NIAGARA FALLS – Speaking to reporters after Kathleen Wynne’s victory in the Liberal leadership contest last weekend, Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor didn’t waste time on niceties.
He didn’t say something like: “I’ve known Kathleen for years in caucus and she’s the right person for the right time.”
Or even something as neutral as: “I want to congratulate Kathleen on her victory.”
Craitor got straight to the point.
He said he wants to meet with the new premier ASAP to discuss what he believes are three of the most pressing priorities in his riding: the future of the Fort Erie Race Track, the potential impact in Niagara Falls if a Toronto casino is built and the proposal to build a new Niagara South hospital. All three of these issues are proverbial balls in the province’s court.
Each has the ability to make or break Kim Craitor’s re-election bid, which could come as early as this spring. But simply waiting for decisions isn’t an option.
Craitor needs good news on at least two of these issues and he needs it now, or the opposition will have all the ammunition it needs to paint him as an ineffective backbencher in a government gripped with self-imposed paralysis. And Craitor knows it.
The Hospital issue:
Niagara Health supervisor Kevin Smith, appointed in August 2011 by the Liberal government with Craitor’s full support, has recommended closing aging facilities in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Welland in favour of building a new super hospital in south-west Niagara Falls.
Craitor backs the plan and has from the time it was unveiled last spring. So do the mayors of Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, who represent the bulk of constituents in Craitor’s riding.
So what’s the holdup?
Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews – who as campaign co-chairwoman for Kathleen Wynne’s leadership bid is certain to play an important role in her cabinet – has been unwilling to say yes or no to the proposal of her own hospital supervisor. She says she wants to see that there is some kind of political consensus in Niagara first, before making decision.
As long as there is not decision, the NHS will remain in limbo, neither being able to get on with the business of building a new hospital and raising millions of dollars locally to do that or, in the alternative, get on with making about $1 billion worth of repairs to the four hospitals Smith says should be closed.
The real reason for stalling may be much more straightforward, but one the higher-ups in the Liberal government don’t want to talk about publicly. They, and the bureaucrats, may be waiting to see how well shifting some services to the new St. Catharines hospital works out.
If they can get away with it, they may just decide one day to close hospitals in Fort Erie and make some repairs to the much reduced hospitals in Niagara Falls and Welland. In politics, that’s the type of thing you keep secret until it’s a done deal.
The problem for Craitor is this: Smith’s recommendation for a new Niagara south hospital is out there sitting on the table and creating a whole lot of anxiety. For those in favour, such as Jim Diodati and Doug Martin – its a rare opportunity they don’t want to see lost. They are eager to see Smith recommendation approved as soon as possible, before the considerable support for such an idea begins to erode.
Those who would rather see the government fix up the existing hospitals want a decision, too. In the meantime, they feel like they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. As the MPP for the riding, Craitor is on the hot seat to deliver – something, anything, at least an answer.
Bart Maves, who recently won the Progressive Conservative nomination in Niagara Falls, surely knows this will be an issue in the upcoming election. Maves, who served as MPP from 1995 to 2003, is well versed in health-care issues. He once served as parliamentary assistant to the minister of health and was the local representative when his government merged hospitals in Niagara to create the NHS.
During the 2007 provincial campaign – which Craitor won handily – Maves was the first to suggest that Niagara needed a second new hospital, one to serve the centre-south of the region, just as the new St. Catharines health-care complex will ultimately serve north Niagara. At the time, Maves sounded like a voice crying in the wilderness.
His idea was not endorsed by Craitor, who, instead, was calling for an operational review of the NHS. Craitor believed the NHS, created by the previous Tory government, was too big and too complex an organization to operate effectively. Five and a half years later, Maves can, during the upcoming campaign, point to the independent findings of a Liberal-appointed hospital supervisor to prove it was he and not Craitor who had been right.
The best Craitor can hope to do before the writ is dropped is to secure a commitment from his government that it supports the Niagara south hospital proposal. If Wynne can’t or won’t get behind Smith’s recommendation, she is leaving Craitor out on a limb with his tail twisting in the wind.
The Toronto Casino Issue:
Nothing scares Niagara politicians, business leaders and the tourism industry like the prospect of a mega-casino in Hog Town. So one-sided is opinion on this issue that Craitor himself has spoken out in opposition to his own party’s policy and will certainly echo his opposition to a Toronto casino during the next election.
Unless Wynne makes a major reversal on this issue – or at the very least calls for a moratorium until further economic impact analysis can be undertaken – Maves and PC leader Tim Hudak will have a field day during the election warning of the impending apocalypse authored solely by the Liberal party of Ontario.
Expect this one to be decided strictly along partisan lines. The bulk of Liberal seats are located in the GTA. Wynne herself represents a Toronto riding.
Meanwhile, Hudak struck out with Toronto voters in the last election.
His party’s strategy in the upcoming election will be to eke out a minority or a slim majority by picking up the handful of Liberal seats outside the GTA.
That includes Craitor seat and the one occupied since 1977 by Liberal cabinet minister Jim Bradley. Again, Craitor will be left without ammunition to repel the Tory attack.
The ‘Vote for me because I’m not afraid to speak up in opposition to my own party’ line may have worked for Craitor last election. There’s likely too much at stake this time for such populist slogans to have much impact.
Niagara wants Wynne to say ‘no’ to a Toronto casino. Anything less puts Craitor’s seat – and maybe Bradley’s – at grave risk.
The Fort Erie Race Track issue
Craitor was helping to “save” the Fort Erie Race Track even before his riding included Fort Erie. He’s been helping to “save” it every year since.
But up until last year, Craitor was trying to save the track from the ill effects of a high Canadian dollar, decline in American visitors, competition from online gambling and the indifference of a private-sector owner who had failed to invest in his own property.
Now Craitor is trying to save the track from his own Liberal government’s policies. Last spring, the government permanently closed the provincially operated Slots at Fort Erie Race Track. Then the government announced the cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks revenue-sharing program, throwing the future of track and that of the entire horse-racing industry in Ontario into jeopardy.
The Liberals, under pressure from the NDP, created a panel to look at ways of providing transitional assistance and funding. The Fort Erie Race Track has applied for transition funding, but has yet to receive an answer.
It’s looking more and more like Fort Erie will get help for at least this year and the “good news” may not be far off. But even that may not satisfy Fort Erie, which has seen thousands of jobs lost during the past nine years.
Wynne’s government will have to do something spectacular to win back support in Fort Erie. The closure of the slots facility alone cost 225-plus jobs. Permanent closure of the track itself would result in hundreds more on the unemployment line.
Rightly or wrongly, those losses are directly attributable to Liberal government policy. It will be hard to undue what has been done.
Meanwhile, Maves and Hudak will have no trouble touting their own track record as both were part of the Mike Harris government that brought slots to Fort Erie. During his campaign to win the PC nomination in Niagara Falls, Maves identified the Fort Erie Race Track as one of his most important priorities.
It’s no accident one of Maves’ two nominators at the nomination meeting a week ago was none other than Daryl Wells, the former announcer at the racetrack still known to many locals by the handle “The Voice of Fort Erie.” At best, Craitor can only hope he’s able to announce the government is providing transition funding. At worst, Craitor will be going into a provincial election campaign explaining how, despite his years of efforts, the 115-year Fort Erie Race Track was shut down on his watch.
On each of these three areas – the hospital, the casino issue, the race track – it can be fairly said that Craitor has done the best he could or any backbench MPP could be expected to do in the uphill battle against one’s own party.
It’s equally fair to say that in the upcoming election, Craitor’s seat is Wynne’s to lose. Unless, that is, she sees fit to throw him a life preserver – quickly.