Sometimes it seems like Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s favourite thing to do is spend money in the name of saving money. For example, he loves to tout his cost-saving prowess and yet last year, he used taxpayer dollars to set up a virtually useless tip line.
I’m alluding to the notorious government “snitch line” the Ford administration established for Ontario parents to report teachers they believed had stepped out of line (for example, by teaching elements of the sex-ed curriculum introduced under the Ontario Liberals).
The venture was virtually useless because the provincial government doesn’t have the authority to discipline teachers directly. (This job belongs to the Ontario College of Teachers.)
In other words while Ford likes to rail against red tape, he seems to have no problem creating it himself.
Enter this month’s licence-plate controversy — another perfect example of Fordian hypocrisy.
Ford announced this week that his government will scrap the slogan on Ontario’s passenger licence plates and replace it with a new one (to be decided at a later date).
As for the province’s commercial licence plates, the premier says it’s possible his government will replace the slogan “Yours to Discover” with “Open for Business.” According to reporting in this newspaper, Ontario Conservatives have already spent more than $100,000 swapping out “Yours to Discover” with “Open for Business” on 25 signs near the border.
There’s no reason to believe this slogan isn’t nakedly partisan. On Tuesday, Ford told the legislature: “people across this province want change. They voted for change and they’re getting change.” They didn’t, however, vote for a change to their licence plates, commercial or otherwise. But that’s what they’re getting, and they’re getting it with a Conservative spin. Open for Business is obviously reminiscent of the Conservative party’s pro-business message.
Unfortunately the phrase is reminiscent of other things, too. For example, Open for Business is what a highly intoxicated teenager might tattoo onto her backside during a spring break vacation (before she spends thousands of dollars getting the thing removed). It is a terrible, embarrassing choice for an official provincial tagline. And it serves no purpose beyond the promotion of the current ruling political party.
Nor will it encourage investment in Ontario. What exactly was Ford’s thinking behind this, if he did any? That upon the change, big spenders will glimpse the back of Ontario trucks, reach for their chequebooks and proclaim “open at last!”
Once again, Ford has introduced an idea steeped in populist nonsense that will achieve absolutely nothing of worth, monetary or otherwise.
That said, I have to know: what’s with all the social media nostalgia about the current slogan “Yours to Discover”?
Opposition to Ford’s “Open for Business” slogan is fierce and funny, as it should be.
But social media users in this province are weirdly protective of a 1980s-era slogan that means nothing. Not only is “Yours to Discover” vague in the extreme: it’s not even catchy. And yet, an online petition called “Keep our License Plates ‘Yours to Discover’” is already circling.
As I type this it’s reached nearly 3,000 signatures. The petition organizers make a valid point that the Ford government is trying to “turn our license plates” into a “political billboard.”
I simply wish we could make this argument without pretending to be in love with “Yours to Discover.” There are decent licence plate slogans out there — plates that say something specific about the lands they represent. Ontario’s is not one of them. Idaho’s is.
According to the Idaho Transportation Department, the state’s standard licence plate reads “Famous Potatoes,” a nod to — you guessed it — the state’s famous potatoes. Fun fact: Idahoans can also order special plates depicting a cartoon image of their state’s claim to fame. (Americans have all the fun.)
Of course, Ontario, far bigger, more diverse, and arguably a lot more interesting than Idaho, can’t be summed up in an ode to starch. Maybe we’re too big to be summed up at all. But we can certainly do better than “Yours to Discover.” And we have to do better than “Open for Business,” if not for our democracy then for our self-respect.
My advice to Premier Ford: if you’re determined to change our plates, put it to the schools. Introduce a province-wide contest that allows Ontario students to submit suggestions for a new licence plate slogan.
Their ideas, fresh from lessons about the history and geography of our province, would be far better than anything your office comes up with. That is unless you’ve already asked Education Minister Lisa Thompson to assign students the role of manufacturing the plates themselves between classes — you know, to promote resiliency.
I may soon get my own plates made, customized for this particular moment in provincial politics. “Ontario: WTF”
Emma Teitel is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @emmaroseteitel