Doug Ford’s pandemic austerity will be paid for in jobs and lives

October 26, 2020

The upcoming Ontario budget is a matter of life and death.

As the pandemic grinds on, Premier Doug Ford’s August pledge that, “We’re going to continue being very fiscally conservative” is terrifying. Doubling down on austerity will cost lives and paralyze the economy.

Now more than ever, Ontario needs its public services. And it needs jobs.

As of mid-September, about 320,000 Ontarians were out of work compared to our pre-COVID peak. That’s better than the spring, when 1.1 million jobs vanished. But a deficit of 320,000 jobs still leaves employment down by 4.2 per cent. That’s worse than at any time during the 2008-09 recession.

Many industries remain in dire straits. Empty offices don’t need cleaners. Travel and tourism aren’t going anywhere. Live sports and cultural events aren’t happening. Hospitality jobs are down sharply, and they’ll likely stay that way for a while.

It’s too early to tell what the post-COVID economy will look like; we only know it will be different. In these uncertain times, businesses aren’t ramping up spending — they’re waiting to see what will happen. Business investment won’t boost job growth any time soon.

The same is true for consumer spending. Lower-income people have lost jobs, lost income, and lost security — they don’t have money to spare. Meanwhile, higher-income people are paying down debts and holding on to cash. The things they like to buy — nice dinners out, theatre tickets, trips abroad — are not available. They’re not spending like they used to.

With business and consumers in waiting mode, only government can spend money fast, support incomes, and create jobs where it is safe to do so.

So what is the Ford plan, exactly?

Well, it’s not about spending money. On Sept. 10, the Financial Accountability Office noted that, of the first $105.6 billion spent in Ontario by the provincial and federal governments to respond to COVID-19, $102 billion — 97 per cent — was federal money. The Ford government has dragged its feet at every turn.

Even in health care, where lives hang in the balance, Ontario’s first-wave spending rose at less than half the rate of B.C. and Quebec.

But there’s hope yet. Queen’s Park’s has budgeted $9.3 billion for COVID contingencies. That’s real money — about one per cent of provincial GDP. The question is, will Ford actually spend it?

If he wants to create jobs now, he can. There is no shortage of important work to do.

Obviously, long-term care is an urgent priority. To improve care and save lives, long-term care homes need thousands more staff. To make those jobs both safe and desirable, the best estimate is that we need to spend an extra $1.6 billion a year on staff and a further $200 million to bring wages up to union rates. The province must fast-track training for personal support workers and pay for it, too. The money the Ford government has earmarked for long-term care isn’t even 30 per cent of what is needed. We need dollars, not dimes.

Fixing our schools is another priority. With a $16.3 billion repair backlog and 50,000 unemployed construction workers, there has never been a better time to bring our schools to a state of good repair. Unlike big infrastructure projects that take years to plan, maintenance and repair work is job-intensive and can start quickly. Other public systems and structures need work, too. Everything wears out in time, and now’s the time to fix it.

There are many other options to get people working. The point is, if some doors are closing, we need to open others, and to do that, we need to spend. This is not just about “building back better” post-pandemic. This is about emergency reinforcements in a job market that is buckling under the weight of COVID-19. Right now. Today.

Market forces are not fixing our problems: we need direct public spending. And if our premier is fretting about debt, he should heed the words of economist Frances Donald: “The more we spend up front, and fast, and quick, the less we will have to spend over an extended period of time.”

Ontario has unmet needs and unemployed people. It’s time to spend money and put them together — in the next Ontario budget.

Randy Robinson is Ontario director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This piece was originally published in the Toronto Star