Look through the smokescreen created by Premier Dalton McGuinty's $23 billion gap campaign and you see a provincial government that is in denial; one that has not been prepared to tackle the fundamental problems for which his government inherited responsibility when it took office.
If you only read the headlines, the record looks promising. The McGuinty government has increased funding significantly for health and education — two of its major priorities. But even that has not bought the real change that Ontario needs.
In health care, the government has not challenged the dysfunctional and inefficient patchwork of privatized public services in long-term care and home care created by the government's predecessor.
In elementary and secondary education, the government has invested in reducing class sizes across the system and improving funding for students at risk, but it continues to give boards less funding to pay teachers than they are actually paid and less funding for school operations than it actually costs to run schools.
In post-secondary education, funding has been increased, but with the government's new tuition policy, students will be paying more in tuition by the end of its term in office in 2007 than they would have if the previous government's policy of tying tuition to inflation remained in effect.
Beyond the priorities, the record is much worse.
Social assistance rates have been increased twice. But even with the increases, social assistance beneficiaries will be worse off when the latest increase takes effect, once inflation is taken into account, than they were when the McGuinty government was elected.
Thanks to the Harris government's cuts, benefits are scandalously low. A single person is expected to get by on $547 even after the increase in the March budget, a single disabled person on $980 a month, and a single parent with two children on $1,184 a month. There is no relationship between these benefit levels and what it actually costs to meet basic needs in Ontario.
Even the Liberals' promise to end the Harris government's clawback of the national child benefit from social assistance beneficiaries has evaporated. The Ontario budget focused on the $550 per year in benefit increases for a single parent with two children that has been passed through since 2004. It failed to mention that the more than $2,700 in child benefits clawed back by the Harris government is still being clawed back from the most vulnerable citizens. For every dollar in child benefits that the McGuinty government has chosen to pass through, $5 is still being clawed back.
Just as important is the government's retreat from its plans for early childhood education. In the face of the Harper government's announced cancellation of the national child-care funding agreements, Ontario has simply folded its tent. Funding for 2005-6 is to be spread out over three years and its plans have been scaled back to fit, leaving parents, child-care providers and municipalities scrambling to figure out what to do next.
The government's response to the federal child-care cuts is pathetic. Child care is Ontario's responsibility. The government's First Start early childhood education plan was in the Ontario Liberals' election platform in 2003 — before there was a federal program. And the crisis in child-care availability in Ontario has nothing to do with the federal government; it was created by cuts imposed by the previous Ontario government.
The McGuinty Liberals are governing in a state of perpetual denial — as if the legacy of public services gaps they inherited does not exist.
That state of denial extends to the revenue side of the budgetary equation as well. The government freely admits that Ontario does not have the fiscal capacity to meet its citizens' public services needs. But its response has been to attribute Ontario's lack of fiscal capacity to McGuinty's apocryphal $23 billion fiscal gap with Ottawa.
The government is denying the obvious. The cost of the tax cuts brought in by the previous government — now running at $15 billion a year in lost revenue — went far beyond what this province could afford. And the bills are still coming in.
There is an answer that involves confronting Ontario's lost fiscal capacity and filling the gaps in public services left behind by the previous government. That's what the Ontario Alternative Budget does. Released last week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the alternative budget shows that by restoring about half of Ontario's lost fiscal capacity, these needs could be met.
Of course, for the McGuinty government the avoidance strategy is the more attractive option. But even within its avoidance strategy, the government has failed its most vulnerable citizens.
The big attention-grabber in the March 23 budget was a $3 billion turnaround in Ontario's fiscal position in 2005-6.
Less than one-tenth of that amount would have been enough to end the clawback of the national child benefit from Ontario's most vulnerable families with children. The government chose to ignore them.
Less than one-fifth of that amount would have been enough to press on with plans for child care, rather than cutting and running in the face of the federal government's cancellation. The government chose instead to abandon its own plans.
Less than one-third of that amount would have been enough to get social assistance benefits halfway from their current level to Social Development Canada's market basket requirement for a basic income. The government chose to ignore the problem.
Instead, the government chose to put its fiscal turnaround at the service of its re-election plans, manipulating the numbers to create the groundwork for a good-news budget next (election) year.
Putting its political game plan ahead of the needs of Ontario's most vulnerable citizens is shameful.
Hugh Mackenzie is a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.