ontario news watch

Government spending and provincial debt have exploded in Ontario over the past two decades. Racking it up has been a bipartisan affair.

Under the leadership of the province’s three latest premiers, Ontario transformed itself from a province with a relatively modest debt load to one crushed by the weight of a massive $400-billion debt burden.

It’s time for Ontario’s politicians to do something about it. Ontario needs a law forcing governments to keep spending increases at or below the rate of inflation to stand in the way of future fiscal recklessness.

But before looking further at the antidote to our problems, it’s important to first look at how we got here.

Dalton McGunity promised to be a responsible steward of the province’s finances when he ran for premier in 2003.

“Ontario deserves a government that will maintain fiscal discipline,” McGuinty told voters on the hustings.

McGuinty’s Liberals promised to abide by the Harris government’s balanced-budget law and work hard to reduce the debt.

“We will not add to the provincial debt,” the Liberal platform said. “We will pay down the debt as conditions allow, with all surpluses going directly to debt payment.”

It turns out the Liberal platform wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Government spending stood at $66 billion and the provincial debt was $110 billon when McGunity took over Queen’s Park. Government spending rose to $130 billion and the provincial debt reached $258 billion by the time McGunity presented his final budget 10 years later.

McGunity increased government spending by more than three times the rate of inflation.

Then along came Kathleen Wynne. Wynne jacked up government spending by another $48 billion and ballooned the debt to $308 billion in a span of just five years.

Wynne actually showed more fiscal restraint than McGunity, if one can even call it that. Instead of increasing spending at three times the rate of inflation, she increased spending at two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation.

Ontarians were tired of 15 years of reckless spending, borrowing and taxing by the time the 2018 election came around.

When Doug Ford entered the political scene, he promised to right the wrongs of his Liberal predecessors.

“The party is over with taxpayers’ money,” Ford declared as he crisscrossed the province.

Ford repeatedly pointed out that under the leadership of McGunity and Wynne, Ontario had become “the most indebted region in the entire world.”

A Progressive Conservative government would change all of that, Ford pledged.

But in the five years since Ford first sat down in the premier’s chair, he’s failed to put Ontario back on a sustainable course. He’s broken the most important promise he made to voters: end government waste and mismanagement.

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy tabled a plan to spend $199 billion and increase the provincial debt to $416 billion in the government’s 2023 fall fiscal update. He called the document a “responsible” plan.

Ontarians should ignore the government’s rhetoric.

The reality is there has been no spending restraint under Ford’s watch. Government spending has increased by $12 billion over and above the rate of inflation in the past five years.

So much for ending the party with taxpayers’ money.

If McGunity, Wynne and Ford had kept government spending increases in line with the rate of inflation, Ontario today would be spending $102 billion. The Ford government is set to spend nearly double that this year.

Ontario would be debt free and would have hundreds of billions of dollars in a rainy-day fund in that very same scenario.

Instead, taxpayers are on the hook for more than $1 billion a month in debt interest payments this year. That’s the equivalent of paying for a brand-new hospital every 30 days.

It’s time to break the cycle of debt and deficits.

Earlier this year, the government of Alberta passed a law mandating spending increases stay at or below the rate of inflation plus population growth.

The best time for Ford to have introduced that kind of legislation was five years ago. The second best time is right now. Ontario taxpayers cannot afford to wait any longer.

Taxpayers are fed up with paying more than $13 billion a year in interest on the debt, money that simply goes into the pockets of Bay Street bondholders.

It’s time for Ford to remember what he promised voters. Five years after he said he would clean up the Liberal mess at Queen’s Park, he’s only made a bad fiscal situation worse.

For the sake of future generations, Ford must balance the books and introduce a spending restraint law to ensure this sorry saga of ballooning deficits and debt finally comes to an end.

Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Two reports were released by the PLACE Centre at the Smart Prosperity Institute about the state of housing, both nationally and in Ontario specifically. It’s also the subject of some actual policy ideas within the Ontario Liberal leadership race, which seems to have its participants largely stepping up on a file that has been largely marginalized by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, at least in a substantive way—he has certainly used the rhetoric about the housing crisis as cover for the corrupt dealings that happened as part of the Greenbelt scandal that the province’s Auditor General outlined in no uncertain terms last week. While both reports—one on the rental housing situation in the country, the other about needing a plan to build 1.5 million homes in Ontario over the next decade—do contain a certain level of overlap between them, the key recommendation between both is coordination, not only between all levels of government, but also with industry and labour. And that’s the part that I worry the most about.

“No one actor in the system can ensure that housing completions keep pace with population growth,” the Ontario report recommends about coordination. “All orders of government, the higher education sector, builders, developers, and the non-profit sector all play a vital role.”

“Create a coordinated plan with all three orders of government and create an Industrial Strategy led by a roundtable of public and private builders, the non- profit housing sector, investors and labour,” the rental report states in its coordination recommendation. “The federal plan should include targets and accountability measures. The plan should include enhanced data collection, more robust and frequent population forecasts and better research to understand Canada’s housing system. The plan should also include a blueprint to fund deeply affordable housing, co-operative housing and supportive housing, along with seniors housing and student residences and double the relative share of non-market community housing.”

The housing crisis is one of the most pressing domestic issues the country faces, the notion of a national round-table discussion that involves the federal government, provinces, major municipalities, and representatives of labour, higher-education and developers seems unwieldly. I have no doubt that these conversations need to happen, and that it would probably help if most, if not all, of the players were in the same room together, but we have had a pretty terrible run lately in this country when it comes to calling big meetings to coordinate things. If you add in the Indigenous component that the rental report recommends, that may be an impossible task—not because they shouldn’t be included, but because their housing needs are so much vaster and more specialized in many cases (such as dealing with the challenges associated with remote communities who are only accessible by ice road for a few weeks out of the year) that it may strain the ability to come to any kind of joint resolution for action to its very breaking point.

Trying to salvage our failing public healthcare systems, particularly after the height of the COVID pandemic, has given us a taste of just how able our federal and provincial governments are when it comes to even trying to work together in order to solve what is a particularly existential crisis for one of Canada’s defining intuitions (well, according to public opinion surveys in any case). In that particular instance, you had provincial premiers who were willing to let the system collapse because they thought that it would give them additional leverage with the prime minister, whom they insisted on sitting down with in order to personally demand more money from, with no strings attached. It didn’t help that these same premiers were also in the thrall of a normalcy bias that had them believing that a healthcare collapse wouldn’t be that bad, because after all, the system didn’t collapse at the height of COVID, so why would it now? Suddenly emergency rooms were being force to close in some hospitals, and the premiers found out just what their unwillingness to do anything about the system was costing the public.

In the end, prime minister Justin Trudeau simply dictated terms to the provinces because they had caught themselves out, and he gave them some money—not nearly as much as they were demanding—with some of the tightest strings that have ever been attached to healthcare dollars, because the federal government had been particularly burned at the height of the pandemic when emergency dollars sent to the provinces didn’t go toward testing, tracing, nurses salaries, or shoring up the healthcare system in anyway. Rather, most provinces simply put the money directly onto their bottom lines in order to eliminate their deficits as their healthcare systems continued to deteriorate past the point of collapse.

I worry that the housing crisis will be little different—particularly as premiers are already demanding a face-to-face thirteen-on-one meeting with the prime minister on infrastructure and housing, which is transparently an attempt to try to bully him into simply turning over more money to them with no strings attached—the way they like it. Not to mention, the provinces already have a history of taking federal transfers intended for social housing, and much as they have done with healthcare dollars for decades, spent them on other things. And while the PLACE report recommendations do talk about targets and accountability measures, that is unlikely to happen without some pretty powerful incentives from the federal government, which is likely to mean money—a lot of it at a time when the federal government is trying to at least look like they’re interested in fiscal restraint.

None of this is to say that the different levels of government shouldn’t be meeting to try and hammer out some kind of coordinated effort on the housing crisis, because they absolutely should. My biggest worry, however, is that too much expectation is going to be placed on the federal government to do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, the work, and the financing to do what needs to be done, while premiers can feel content to not hold up their end of the bargain and put all of the blame on the federal government while legacy media says things like “nobody cares about jurisdiction.” We are in a housing crisis. We do need all hands on deck. But we also need to ensure that premiers or mayors can’t shirk their duties without consequences from the public, because that is where the pressure needs to come from.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Anyone who believes Doug Ford and Danielle Smith speak for the great majority in their provinces might want to look again at an Ipsos poll taken late in January 2023.

It asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with “I am in favour of private health care for those who can afford it.”

A full 60% agreed Canada-wide. In Quebec as many as 75% were in favour. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan it was 70%, and in BC 65% — all above the 60% Canadian average.

Atlantic Canada was below average — with only 57% in favour. But at the lowest end it was only 52% in Ontario and 49% in Alberta!

Meanwhile, a few Ontario voters paying very close attention may also be wondering how Premier Ford’s current interest in private health care options relates to the broader innovative health care reforms his government introduced almost four years ago?

Somewhat ironically, various piecemeal reforms and pilot projects of the past generation finally came together in an almost major burst of change under the first Ford government’s People’s Health Care Act of 2019.

Even with its populist title this act reflected the Ontario Ministry of Health’s long-meditated variation on “Integrated Health Care” reform — a policy-experts’ strategy for improving health care delivery in North America and beyond.

In late June 2019 the Ford government’s “new bold vision” was applauded by the Premier’s Council on Improving Healthcare and Ending Hallway Medicine : “The Ontario Health agency, and Ontario Health Teams [two new organizational structures created by the 2019 act] are important parts of building an integrated health care system in Ontario.”

The Council went on : “ When teams of health professionals work together to serve the same group of people … resources would follow the patient. There would be an emphasis on prevention and well-being.”

The COVID-19 pandemic no doubt affected the practical realization of this vision. Former health minister Christine Elliott’s decision not to run in the 2022 Ontario election may have added a further complication.

Something of the 2019 vision nonetheless survives in an early February 2023 health care reform update tabled by current health minister Sylvia Jones, and headlined “Your Health: A Plan for Connected and Convenient Care.”

The recent progress can also be seen in the Annual Business Plan, 2022/23 of Ontario Health — the single centralized agency presiding over the more decentralized world of Ontario Teams in the aspiring new integrated care system.

In 2022/23 Queen’s Park has been spending some $30.5 billion on the Ontario Health agency and its various Ontario Teams, out of a total Health Sector spending of $75.2 billion.

Dr. Mekalai Kumanan, president of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, has similarly suggested that so far only some 25% of the province’s family doctors are “working in teams” where “physicians are supported by nurses, dietitians, social workers and more.”

At the same time, there has been progress. The newly centralizing Ontario Health has (in its own business-plan words) “created one high-performing team from 22 previous standalone agencies and organizations, saving the government over $219 million.”

In understanding the companion Ontario Teams concept it seems important to remember that there are several levels of lower-level teams.

According to the February 2023 update : “Across the province, 54 Ontario Health Teams are working to improve transitions between health care providers.” An additional four are in the works for a total of what seem to be 58 geographically based regions.

Yet a key task for these regional Ontario Health Teams is fostering the smaller primary care teams of Dr. Kumanan’s “physicians … supported by nurses, dietitians, social workers and more,” that so far involve only about a quarter of family doctors.

Sylvia Jones’s February 2023 update suggests a carry on slowly approach to all this : “We are also providing … $30 million” to “create up to 18 new … interprofessional primary care teams, which include … nurses, doctors, social workers and others.”

Meanwhile, of course, there is as well something of a fresh note on the innovation that continues to drive Ontario health care policy.

As the February 2023 update explains, to help reduce “wait times” for such “surgeries and procedures” as Hip Replacement, Knee Replacement, and Cataract Surgery the Government of Ontario will also be “providing these publicly funded services through community surgical and diagnostic centres.”

And suddenly this runs into a big Canada-wide debate on “private health care for those who can afford it,” which 60% of all Canadians favour — but only 52% like in Ontario!

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is hitting the cities of Toronto and Ottawa with a wrecking ball that will undermine accountability and democracy.

The Ford government introduced Bill 39 as an attempt to break the gridlock often experienced on city councils in Toronto and Ottawa. The major reason Ford introduced the legislation is to prioritize the speedy approval and construction of new housing in some of Ontario’s most dense communities.

The main feature of the bill is that it gives the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa so-called strong mayor powers.

On the surface, the bill looks promising. Bill 39 would allow mayors in Toronto and Ottawa to have more control over appointments and establishing priorities for council. It would also allow those mayors to have more control over the budgetary process. And, by allowing mayors to establish priorities and have more control over council’s agenda, it could, in theory, help with the housing issue.

But that’s where the good parts of the bill end.

The most dangerous element of Bill 39 is that it would allow the mayor to pass laws that only receive the support of one third of council.

In a democracy, allowing just one third of council, if aligned with the mayor, to pass any law under the sun is extremely dangerous.

From Ford’s perspective, this bill also makes little sense. Right now, John Tory is the mayor of Toronto and Mark Sutcliffe is the mayor of Ottawa.

Both men appear to be amenable to parts of Ford’s agenda.

But, in theory, both mayors could also hold the province hostage. Imagine a scenario in which a duly elected mayor and a small minority of councillors choose to pass policies that run directly counter to provincial priorities.

Not too long ago, David Miller was mayor of Toronto. He pushed through some of the largest property tax hikes in the province’s history.

If Miller had only needed the support of one-third of council to raise property taxes, tax hikes could have soared. Instead of a 10 per cent hike, homeowners could have been looking at a 20 per cent increase.

The need to win the support of a majority of councillors is a key mechanism in ensuring that extreme policies don’t turn into ill-fated laws.

Ford claims Bill 39 is democratic. According to the premier, mayors are duly elected by voters, so giving them more control over the agenda isn’t undemocratic.

Giving mayors more of a say in setting the agenda is a good thing. But there’s a reason that we don’t elect municipal dictators. We elect councillors to help shape the agenda, allow for more diverse voices at the table, and ensure that every corner of the city is represented at city hall.

Handing one third of council the power to pass any law they want so long as they have the mayor’s backing is minority rule. In no other democratic institution in Canada do we allow a minority of elected representatives to impose an agenda opposed by a majority of elected officials.

If he finds this new mayoral power system successful, Ford plans to extend these powers to municipalities across the province. Democracy in Toronto and Ottawa isn’t only at stake – Ontarians all across the province have a stake in this fight.

Bill 39 needs a fundamental re-write. Today, mayors all across the province don’t have enough power and influence. Ford’s desire to give them a stronger voice is sensible. But allowing one third of council the ability to hold the cities of Toronto or Ottawa hostage is a major mistake.

Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Public sector unions, especially connected with education, have been intermittent thorns in the sides of all of Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic governments of Ontario for the past several decades.

In late November 2022 the Ford government’s standing up while also conceding to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, acting on behalf of striking non-teaching education workers, may finally win decisive support from parents too long haunted by children out of school.

Yet the province’s tentative deal with CUPE  (still to be ratified by education workers) does raise questions about just where the Ford government is going in its second term.

Is the current incarnation of the Ford Nation PC Party really “building a stronger province  … just like Bill Davis did so many years ago” — as finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy urged in his recent Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review speech?

Or does the Ford government still have all the wrong basic instincts to seriously cover itself in the mantle of the William Davis Progressive Conservatives, 1971–1985?

On the side of the angels, 11 days after it was passed Premier Ford did repeal Bill 28. It had imposed a contract on striking CUPE education workers, banned  them from further striking, and then invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution Act, 1982, lest anyone claim Bill 28 violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed alarm at the Ford government’s almost casual invoking of the notwithstanding clause in Bill 28. Opinion polls like the one published by Abacus Data on November 6 may have influenced the premier’s decision to repeal as well.

In response to the question “Ultimately, who do you blame the most for schools being closed due to the education worker strike,” 38% of the Abacus Ontario respondents said “Education Workers” and 62% said “Provincial Government.”

This Abacus poll also captures the Ford government’s democratic dilemma in a deeper sense. The 38% of Ontario respondents  who blamed Education Workers for closed schools is not much different from the less than 41% of the province-wide popular vote the Ford PC s won in this past June’s election.

With now four parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system, this clear minority of the popular vote was enough to give the PC s a two-thirds majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly — in the lowest voter turnout election in Ontario since 1867!

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2022 the 62% in the Abacus poll who blamed the Provincial Government  for closed schools is not much different from the more than 59% who voted against the Ford government this past June 2.

The William Davis Progressive Conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s — or even the long Progressive Conservative dynasty from 1943 to 1985 — may at least have advice to offer here.

Like the Ford Ontario PCs of the 21st century, the historic PC dynasty never quite won a majority of the province-wide popular vote. The average over the 12 elections from 1943 to 1981 was 43%

But the PC dynasts remembered  that the majority of the people of Ontario regularly voted against them. They stayed in office for 42 years by skillfully exploiting the traditional electoral system in a three-party legislature — and by keeping an eye on the real majority of the electorate.

Bill Davis and his peers similarly knew that over the longer term it is unwise to get too rough with your opponents when the majority of the people vote for them.

Whatever else, it is not easy to see much of the Premier Davis who stopped the Spadina Expressway in 1971 in the Ford Nation Ontario PCs a half century later.

The initial design of Bill 28 in the dispute between the Ford government and CUPE was a glaring example of what Bill Davis would resolutely avoid.

On the more complex sides of the dispute — beyond dismal worker wages — this past summer the Financial Accountability Office did report reductions in Ontario education spending.

The broader history of Ford Nation budgets is similarly intriguing. In the government’s first budget for 2019–20 the “Health Sector” accounted for 38.9% of Total Expense, and the “Education Sector” for 18.2%. In the budget for 2022–23 the Health Sector accounts for only 37.8% and the Education Sector only 16.3%.

There are no doubt a few possible deeper meanings for such raw statistics. Yet in any of them it is hard to see much that the former 1960s Minister of Education William Davis, who helped pioneer Ontario’s present-day health and education sectors, would welcome with open arms.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.