Ford government is still ducking the toughest questions
When Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli stood in the legislature on Thursday to deliver his fall economic update it was the first real chance Ontarians have had to learn how the Ford government intends to handle the province’s finances.
Now we know a little bit more.
Fedeli called it “a plan for the people,” but it’s more of a grab-bag of measures that will benefit some businesses and people while leaving the biggest questions facing Ontario still unanswered.
The government is giving small businesses a tax break and has forecast the potential of more breaks for businesses down the line. It’s rolling back a planned tax increase on the wealthiest Ontarians and cutting income tax for the lowest-paid workers. But given how little tax they pay now they’ll end up with far less money in their pockets than they would have if Ford hadn’t cancelled a planned raise in the minimum wage to $15.
The province is ending rent control for new units, hoping to encourage developers to build more rental apartments. But that will inevitably result in higher rents at a time when tenants already face an affordability crisis.
They’ve slashed the independent watchdogs for the environment, vulnerable children and francophones. And they’re eliminating public per-vote funding for political parties, which is likely to hurt the opposition parties more than the Progressive Conservatives. It all amounts to less oversight and a less feisty opposition.
But where will Ford’s promised $6 billion in efficiencies come from? When will the government eliminate the deficit and how? And what is Ontario’s plan to fight climate change?
Fedeli’s update kicks all that down the line with a warning that “the road ahead is not an easy one.”
And to help it make the more substantial cuts, when they inevitably do come, seem more necessary the government purposely made that road more difficult.
It artificially raised the provincial deficit from the Wynne government’s $6.7 billion to $15 billion, largely through adopting a different accounting method for public sector pension assets and money borrowed to reduce electricity bills.
It’s raised the dragon so it can slay the dragon. Or, in Ford-speak, “promise made, promise kept.”
Ford told Ontarians that provincial finances were worse than people thought, he made them worse by capitalizing on an accounting debate. He then used that as cover to deliver a series of spending cuts from slashing a planned social assistance increase in half to cancelling satellite campuses.
On Thursday, Fedeli claimed to have saved $3.2 billion in unspecified spending and reduced the deficit by $500 million, so it now stands at $14.5 billion.
“We have made progress, but there is still much work to be done,” Fedeli said. He went on to speak vaguely about about taking “a new direction,” and intent on a “meaningful debt reduction strategy,” and delivering government services “effectively.”
This government seems content to leave Ontarians in the dark about what any of that will actually mean. For now, the continued focus is on campaign-style announcements of the buck-a-beer variety that Ford likes so much. This time round, it’s ordering liquor stores to keep longer hours and putting notes on home heating bills and gas pumps telling Ontarians how much the federal carbon tax is costing them.
This update is the latest vehicle for the Ford government to perpetuate the idea that the province is in a state of crisis. What it doesn’t do is give us much of an idea of how it plans to tackle the big issues.