Queen’s Park makes plans for a decade of pain

August 18, 2020

Last week’s Ontario fiscal update gave us our first real glimpse of how Premier Doug Ford sees the post-pandemic world.

Here’s his plan in a nutshell: Once we corral COVID-19, it’s back to business as usual. Get ready for cuts to public services.

“We’re going to continue being very fiscally conservative,” Ford said.

With the provincial deficit ballooning because of the pandemic, expect the cuts to go on for a long, long time if the premier has his way. We’re looking at a decade of pain.

That pain has already started. Despite setting aside $10 billion for contingencies as the pandemic continues, Queen’s Park shows little interest in spending it — even to protect the health of two million children and their families.

No one knows what a truly safe September in our schools would cost, but parents and staff can already see that the current plan falls short. It’s short on staff, it’s short on space, and it’s short on time. It needs all three, and it needs them yesterday.

Here’s the question: If Ford and company won’t even support schools during a global health crisis, what else is at risk?

We are finding out already. In July, the government cut a $100 emergency payment to social assistance recipients, many of whom only get $733 a month as it is. This is a bad omen: Depending on how Ottawa changes Employment Insurance, thousands of Ontarians may soon be applying for provincial income support.

In long-term care, the government’s announcement of money to build more homes wasn’t new money — just a tweaked reannouncement of the previous government’s already-budgeted plan. And while the premier says personal support workers in long-term care are “grossly underpaid,” he has made no move to raise their wages beyond the pandemic. And staffing levels are far from safe.

The government is doing everything it can to not spend. The finance minister says he’ll use that extra $10 billion if needed, but there’s a telling line in last week’s update: “Any unused contingency funds at year end will go towards reducing the Province’s net debt position.”

Meet the new plan. Same as the old plan.

Ontario already spends $2,000 less per person per year on public services compared to the average of other provinces, and before the pandemic hit, the Ford government had vowed to cut even more.

That was a mistake then; it’s a mistake now. The pandemic has exposed how threadbare our social safety net is and how dangerously underfunded our public services are. But it has also shown that we can solve enormous problems if we harness the power of government.

That’s a good thing. Because COVID-19 is not the only emergency we face.

Long-term care is an emergency. Poverty and the loss of good steady jobs is an emergency. Racial injustice is an emergency. There are many more.

On the climate front, for example, the UN says we have 10 years to transform our economy to keep Earth livable. If we don’t take action now, flooded basements will be the least of our worries. It’s up to all levels of government, from all parties, to work together.

Just like with COVID-19.

Ontario faces too many challenges to ignore. We cannot wait to take action. Not for a decade. Not for a second.

Ontario’s debt is not the crisis. It is manageable, and it will remain so. Interest rates are at rock-bottom lows — so low, in fact, that even with recent new borrowing, we are paying less interest now than we did before.

Do we need to raise more money? Absolutely. And we can afford it. We’re a low-spending province but also a rich one, even though that prosperity doesn’t filter down to everyone: in 2018, the country’s top CEOs raked in 227 times the average Canadian’s income that year.

Doug Ford says, “I don’t believe in raising taxes,” but robust government needs money, and many Ontarians are in a position to help.

Mobilizing the people and resources of Ontario to tackle urgent problems won’t be easy, but it can be done, and we should do it. Because otherwise we’ve got nothing to look forward to but a decade of pain.

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