Two major Ontario public school unions – the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) are currently seeking a mandate to strike from their members. Although this didn’t take long as their contracts just recently expired, this is not surprising given that all unions reflexively oppose Conservative governments as they are much less willing than Liberals and other parties on the left to endlessly fleece average taxpayers for the unions’ benefit. In the case of EFTO, they claim they are looking to consult their members over the next couple of months to determine their appetite for strike action. The CUPE workers, which include janitorial and other support staff, could be out on strike as early as September 23.
Over the past week, two reports from very different sources have come out indicating that there are some very serious concerns among Canadians about the state of our society and institutions.
The first report was in the form of a public opinion poll by Ipsos Canada that showed a majority of Canadians – 52 per cent – believe that Canada’s society is broken. This was a sizeable increase from 2016, when 37 per cent of Canadians held this point of view. Only 19 per cent of those surveyed did not believe that Canada was broken, while the remainder were neutral or didn’t know. Other data from the survey were also disturbing, with 67 per cent of Canadians believing that the economy is rigged in favour of the “elites”, and 61 per cent expressing the opinion that politicians don’t care about average people.
The federal election hasn’t even officially begun yet, but we are already being bombarded by advertising by the so-called “third party” groups expressing their views on which political parties or candidates should be elected – or not – in October. In the 2015 election, the vast majority of third party groups were promoting the election of a Liberal government – often with foreign money – and ran dishonest campaigns against Conservative candidates in swing ridings. As we now know, a sufficient number of these swing ridings did vote Liberal, and Justin Trudeau ended up with a majority government. In 2019, quite a few third parties supportive of Conservatives have sprung up and are taking action to oppose another term of Liberal rule. As a result, the involvement of these groups in the upcoming election looks to be more balanced than it was in 2015, although the largely union-funded leftist groups are still in the majority.
Last week Ontario Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy announced that by implementing a few simple administrative measures, the government saved $153 million over a couple of months earlier this year. This is of course not a princely sum in light of realities such as the fact that the government pays $34 million per day in interest on its massive debt. But it’s a start and shows that over time serious money can be saved by changes that are merely sensible and should have been done long ago.
Another year, another bad report card on the performance of Ontario’s students in math. This was illustrated by the most recent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) test results, which was made public this week. The data show that 58 per cent of grade three students met basic math standards, which is a four per cent decline from 2016. Only 48 per cent of grade six students met the math standards, down one per cent from 2016. These declines have been happening for over a decade, and tend to coincide with the introduction of so-called “discovery” math which moves away from teaching basic math principles to a supposedly more “problem-solving” oriented approach. However, other studies have found Ontario students problem solving capabilities have also declined, so this version of math teaching has seemingly failed on that front as well. What is especially painful about the long decline in student math achievement is that under the former Liberal government the overall budget for education roughly doubled at a time when the number of students declined. Many analyses have revealed that virtually all of the spending increases went to teachers’ unions and teacher salaries, pensions and other benefits. Basically, Ontarians are paying more and more for less and less in our public education system, and our children are being seriously short-changed in the process.
The nature of the “welfare trap” is well understood as the situation that arises when a person is discouraged from seeking work or better-paid work because they will face higher tax levels for any additional income and/or lose benefits that only accrue to lower income citizens. As a result, people in these circumstances opt to remain unemployed or in a low income job. A new study from the CD Howe Institute entitled “The Paycheck Blues” has provided some pretty shocking measurements of the extent of the welfare trap in Canada and the many problems it creates for both the individuals and families stuck in low income lives, as well as the economy overall.
The fact that government employees enjoy much better pensions than the rest of us who pay for them is fairly well known, but the extent of the inequity and how much it costs private sector taxpayers needs to be better understood. The reality is private sector taxpayers should be outraged by the large contributions they are making to other people’s pensions while attempting to save for a much more modest retirement for themselves. The details of this situation were recently updated in an article by Fred Vettese, Chief Actuary for Morneau Shepell. Yes, that Morneau Shepell, the pension business inherited by the current federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
The Ford government is undertaking a review of the self-serving so-called “news” video service called Ontario News Now (ONN). Good. This faux news entity is financed by taxpayer dollars, and produces puff pieces on various policy announcements and other activities of Premier Ford and his colleagues. The justification for creating this service in the first place was that much of the regular media is so anti-conservative that Ontario’s government would not be able to get a fair shake in the press so needed to take matters into its own hands and oversee its own coverage of events. Although there is certainly a fair amount of truth to the fact that the majority of conventional media tends to be left-leaning, that does not mean that the creation of ONN was necessary or a good use of tax dollars.
While many Canadians are focused on the continuing amateur hour going on in Ottawa, where Justin Trudeau was just found yet again in violation of ethics laws, the economic news is getting decidedly grim. And although Trudeau seems to feel he is not bound by the same laws that apply to the rest of us mere mortals, there are few if any politicians that don’t find themselves ultimately beholden to the immutable laws of economics. Trudeau is no exception, and more’s the pity for Canada.
Many economic indicators have turned south in recent months, with a loss of 25,000 jobs in Canada in July. This was the second consecutive month of job loss. We have also experienced a weakening Canadian dollar, turmoil in stock and bond markets, and slowing growth in key powerhouse economies around the world such as Germany and China. Add the US-China trade war into the mix and all of the uncertainty for businesses and investment that creates, and we have a perfect storm of economic bad news. Recessions tend to come around every decade or so, and as the last recession took place in 2008, the global economy is ripe for a downturn.
There have been quite a number of disturbing things in the crime department happening over the past few months in Ontario. We have seen far too many incidents involving guns, and over the Simcoe Day long weekend alone there were 17 people that suffered gunshot wounds in Toronto. Although it may be tempting to explain this away as being a Toronto problem, there have also been numerous incidents of gun-related violence in the GTA and beyond. We have seen an absurd number of dangerous people wandering away from a supposedly secure mental health facility, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), to the point that you have to wonder if this facility has any security procedures at all. Another disturbing event was the case of Elizabeth Wettlaufer, the killer nurse who managed to murder eight vulnerable seniors and attempted to kill four more before she was finally caught, which apparently happened only because she confessed and not because anyone in authority bothered to act on the many red flags that surrounded her for years. In July, an Ontario judge refused to convict an aboriginal woman who was driving with three times the legal limit of alcohol in her bloodstream because of “colonialism and racism”. The sum total of these events presents a disturbing picture that should very much concern average Ontarians.
Most Ontarians are rightly concerned about environmental issues, and are more than willing to actively contribute to initiatives that have positive impacts on the environment. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about “green” policies of late have revolved around carbon taxation or cap and trade systems (another form of putting a price on carbon). But these policies have come into disrepute as experience with them has not lived up to initial expectations. For instance, it has become evident that revenues from carbon taxes very often do not end up being spent on environmental matters but just become slush funds for government.
In recent weeks we have yet again seen politicians of all partisan stripes and others promote the fallacy that more government spending results in more or better public services. In response to dishonest claims by federal Liberals that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would cut health care spending “just like Doug Ford” (who by the way has not cut health care spending), Scheer rose to the bait and made a commitment that he would guarantee an annual increase of three per cent in health care transfers to the provinces. Great, right? Turns out, not so much.
Despite being in the summer doldrums when most folks are more concerned about hanging out on the dock with a cool beverage than paying attention to the news, there was a bozo eruption from the left this week that got some undeserved media play. The whole thing started with a story from an online so-called news service called Queen’s Park Today, concerning a story on the Ontario Conservatives’ online Ontario News Now outlet about Premier Ford having paid a visit to an Ontario winery, namely Pelee Island Winery, and saying good things about the Ontario business. Another politician visiting a business during the summer months when legislatures are not sitting and making some complimentary public statements about it is something unremarkable that happens every day. That should have been the end of it and, if it had been a Liberal or other non-Conservative government in power, it likely would have been.
Most people who have dealt with the Ontario health care system in recent years have been disappointed. Long delays, bureaucratic snafus, so-called “hallway healthcare”, shortage of family doctors and administrative incompetence seem to be the norm. Yet despite all of the evident problems, there is still an enormous amount of resistance to change it, and there remain a significant number of Canadians who mistakenly believe that we have “the best health care system in the world”.
It has been many years since Ontario had a serious look at the massive bureaucracy in the public education system, and it is high time it was revisited. The current system has a structure designed for an era when most families were Christian and spoke either English or French. Needless to say, our current reality is very different and has been for some time. We also maintain an educational structure designed for many more students, yet enrollment in Ontario has been declining for years. From 2009 to 2019, for example, education spending increased by over 30 per cent while enrollment declined by 110,000 students. If student performance had improved over the same period, perhaps there could be some justification for the higher spending but performance actually worsened in those years, causing even more questions around whether any value at all was achieved for all those extra dollars spent. Another issue arising from declining student numbers is the reality of many half-empty schools in the province. There has been considerable discussion around the fact that many existing schools need repair and upgrading, and it would seem to make the most sense to focus that spending on schools that are already near capacity and consolidate the schools that are mostly empty, not waste funds on facilities that have no prospect of being fully utilized for the foreseeable future. Clearly, something’s gotta give.
If we believe the worst predictions of the climate change alarmists, we may be able to grow bananas in Canada in the not-too-distant future. However, it seems that policies of the Trudeau government are on track to deliver Canada into the ranks of banana republics much sooner.
Last week the final report of the pompously-named “Journalism and Written Media Independent Panel of Experts” was released. This is basically the group that was selected to oversee doling out $600 million taxpayer dollars to struggling old-school newspapers that are, like so many industries in this day and age, being made obsolete by advances in technology. The panel is composed of a number of different journalist, news organizations and Unifor, the avowedly anti-Conservative union that represents journalists in a number of publications. Calling this group “independent” is laughable at best, as their undoubted bias in giving out tax dollars effectively to themselves is basically akin to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. Adding pro-Liberal Unifor to the mix at election time is nothing short of disgraceful, and should appall all Canadians.
Someone recently asked me why suddenly there seems to be so much negative media piling on the criticism of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The Toronto Star alone – well known as a rabid supporter of all things Liberal – seems to have some kind of poll coming out every few days with some new angle on how a majority of Ontarians have a dim view of Ford and his government. Most of these polls are done online and not scientifically conducted, so their findings are questionable, but they still make some pretty good headlines. And Ford has had his challenges lately as well, mostly around a botched appointment process linked to the Premier’s former Chief of Staff, Dean French. French is now gone from that position and measures have been put in place to clean up any issues in the appointment process, so all things being equal that should put this issue to bed for the time being.
A couple of recent incidents in Ontario underlined yet again how tax dollars are regularly abused by government employees. One incident involved teachers, who, as the data trickles in following the end of another school year, were found to once again be taking an inordinate number of sick days. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy called it a “June flu epidemic”, noting that up to 21 per cent of Toronto’s Catholic teachers and 15 per cent of public school elementary teachers were “off sick” for the last few Fridays before school ended. Most of these “illnesses” fell on a Friday or Monday. Frequently, the same teachers were off “sick” both Friday and Monday in a given week. Imagine running a private business when 15 to 20 per cent of your workforce is often absent on any given day? It should also be noted that teachers in the province have a very generous sick leave allotment of 11 fully paid sick days per year, plus another five miscellaneous days to be used however the teacher wants. Some apologists for the teachers’ behavior stated that they might have had some sick days left over to “use up” before the end of the year. But sick days are not holidays, and are to be used when actually sick. Any other use of this time is pure and simple abuse of tax dollars.
I would love to be a fly on the wall at the meetings currently underway among Canada’s provincial Premiers, the so-called Council of the Federation. The meeting is taking place in Saskatoon but most of the Premiers took the opportunity to stop off briefly in Alberta the night before and, with the Calgary Stampede underway, the obligatory awkward photos of politicians in cowboy hats flipping pancakes were part of the proceedings. But the real action will be taking place out of the public eye once the closed-door meetings are underway. The usual issues of interprovincial trade barriers, accreditation for workers from different provinces, energy matters, the carbon tax, etc. will undoubtedly be on the agenda. Most of the liveliest discussions, however, will surely be around activities the Premiers will be planning in the few months remaining before October’s federal election.
The latest development in the ongoing dust-up over appointments under the Doug Ford government occurred last week, with Ontario Liberal Leader John Fraser asking the Integrity Commissioner to review all government appointments since the Conservatives came into power in June 2018. There is no doubt there were a few botched appointments, notably two Agent General appointees who turned out to be closely connected to former Ford Chief of Staff Dean French, and who did not possess appropriate qualifications for the positions. Once this came to light, the appointments were quickly rescinded and a few other appointments withdrawn because they had connections to French, even though most of the people involved were well-qualified for the posts. Dean French also walked the plank over this issue and is no longer Ford’s Chief of Staff. This is not the first time this type of situation has happened with governments of all political stripes, and it’s unlikely to be the last. The departure of French and the rescinding of the offending appointments should be the end of it, especially as the Ford government has launched a review of the overall appointment process. But as this situation involves a Conservative government, the usual rules do not apply.
Newly-minted Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has his work cut out for him. With contracts for teachers and other education workers expiring at the end of August, there is not a great deal of time to negotiate new agreements before the start of the next school year. This is not by accident of course, as unions always contrive to have their collective agreements expire at the most difficult time for the employer so that maximum pressure can be applied. For teachers’ unions, this means that contracts expiring just before the school year starts is perfect for them, and disastrous for taxpayers, parents and the students themselves. It’s hard to believe that we Ontarians tolerate this abuse year after year.
We Canadians are usually a pretty contented lot. We have an enviable standard of living compared with other countries around the world, enjoy a large and beautiful geography with much variety and wide open spaces, a climate that can be quite variable but is not plagued by the regular natural disasters that afflict many other nations, a largely peaceful society and the good fortune of valuable natural resources that contribute significantly to our wealth. We are a country of immigrants that by and large get along very well with each other. People from other countries seem to consistently want to come to Canada, so we must be doing something right. Right? So why are we so worried about our future?
Recent tensions between the Ontario provincial government and the City of Toronto have once again revived interest in Toronto seeking to become a Charter City. Charter status would mean that Toronto – and possibly other cities – would have constitutionally protected authority to exercise much more autonomy that it can currently in its position of being a “creature of the province”, subject to provincial oversight on most issues of importance.
The establishment of a Charter City would be a first for Canada. All Canadian cities currently have the same status of being under the jurisdiction of the relevant province, with limited autonomy. The concept is far more established in the US, where 10 states have adopted the model. Toronto has broached the idea of becoming a Charter City a number of times in the past few decades, usually motivated by a desire for more money or the perception of an unfriendly provincial government that won’t go along with initiatives the city favours. In this latest iteration of Charter fever, there has been an organization established – Charter City Toronto – founded in part by former leftist Toronto Mayor John Sewell. The Charter concept in general has been primarily supported by politicians and others on the left, with the common goal of extracting more tax dollars from city residents, businesses and other levels of government.
Following a seismic cabinet shuffle last Thursday, the government of Doug Ford saw another significant development on Friday with the resignation of the Premier’s Chief of Staff, Dean French. French had been under criticism for some time because of an autocratic style that many elected Conservatives resented. This is a fairly common criticism of Chiefs of Staff to political leaders, who frequently have to perform the thankless task of being gatekeeper to the leader, limiting access to others and acting as a go-between. At the federal level, Justin Trudeau famously said to his caucus members that if his Chief of Staff, Gerald Butts, spoke on an issue the caucus could take it as coming from Trudeau himself. Interestingly, Butts himself resigned a few months ago in the wake of the SNC Lavalin scandal. Overall, it is a rare Chief of Staff that is appreciated by those elected to a legislature.
After almost exactly one year in office, Premier Doug Ford announced a major Cabinet shuffle this week. And it was indeed major. Almost all of the most important portfolios saw a change in the responsible Minister. Some of the key moves include Vic Fedelli leaving Finance for Economic Development with Rod Phillips moving into the Finance role and Lisa MacLeod exiting Children and Social Services and being replaced by former economic development Minister Todd Smith. Also significant was the departure of Lisa Thompson from the education portfolio, replaced by Stephen Lecce, a first-time MPP who has performed well as Deputy Government House Leader and Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier. Caroline Mulroney is out as Attorney General, with Doug Downey stepping into that important post. Christine Elliot remains as Health Minister, but elements of the health ministry are to be split off with Merrilee Fullerton now responsible for long-term care and Michael Tibollo for mental health. Laurie Scott switched places with Monte MacNaughton with the former moving to Infrastructure and the latter to Labour. All in all, a very significant shuffle.
If you watched any of the NBA finals featuring the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors – and let’s face it, who didn’t – you would have been treated to ads that are the first major salvo in the left wing’s campaign to do everything they can to prevent the Conservative party from being elected in this October’s federal election. The ads were funded by a third party group called Engage Canada, and attempted to portray Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as weak, and a pawn of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Third parties are entities which are not political parties, unions or businesses, and their presence has grown like crazy in Canada in recent years. Although there have for many years been limits on how much unions and corporations can spend in an election period, similar limits on third party spending are a relatively recent phenomenon.
The government of Premier Doug Ford has now been in power for just over a year, and what a busy and tumultuous time it has been. After being out of power for almost 15 years in Ontario, the Progressive Conservative party had much pent-up energy for policies they now want to act upon as quickly as possible. Former Premier Mike Harris, when asked if he had any regrets from the time he was Ontario Premier, famously said he was sorry he didn’t do more things early in his tenure. Judging from the past 12 months, it seems the Ford government has taken that advice to heart.
Mark July 3, 2019 in your calendars, Ontario taxpayers. That is the date when we will know exactly how much our municipal governments, school boards and other provincial institutions such as colleges and universities are telling the truth when they repeatedly claim to really care about saving taxpayers money. These various government entities have been presented with a very important choice courtesy of Bill 66, the “Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act”, which was passed a couple of months ago.
In a move guaranteed to pump up the volume of public sector union caterwauling – if that is even possible at this point – this week the Ford government decreed that core public sector wages would be capped for the next three years with a maximum increase of one per cent. During last year’s election campaign, the Conservatives spoke in generalities about the need to constrain the growing cost of government as an essential part of any strategy to get the province’s financial affairs back into balance. What they meant by that just got real this week.
Many Ontarians would be surprised to find that the province got some good financial news last week. As is often the case when good news is in the offing for a conservative government, there was minimal media coverage of the fact that a key credit rating agency, Fitch Ratings Inc., upgraded the province’s credit rating from negative to stable. Fitch is one of the so-called “Big Three” nationally recognized credit rating agencies, along with Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, so this development is important and a positive endorsement of the financial direction the Ford government is pursuing. And when one major credit rating agency makes changes, whether positive or negative, the rest are usually not far behind.
We Canadians are a fortunate people. Throughout our history we have been the beneficiaries of a consistently strong economy, based in large part upon the sheer good luck of having abundant natural resources that are in demand in the rest of the world. We are also geographically blessed, being located in a part of the world not often subject to natural disasters and next door to the most robust free enterprise economy in the world which, despite many Canadians’ closet resentment of anything American, has been a boon to our country in many ways. Looking at the chaos happening in much of Europe currently as a result of the migrant crisis, ongoing violence in the Middle East and other global disruption, we should also be thankful that we are insulated from much of that turmoil by having large bodies of water separating us from those catastrophes. The hard work and ingenuity of Canadians has surely played a role in our national success as well, but we also have to recognize the important of sheer dumb luck.
One of last week’s big news stories concerned a letter written by 10 former Ministers of Health in Ontario recommending the Ford government reverse planned cuts to public health spending. Much was made of the fact that one of these former Ministers was a Conservative, albeit from about 40 years ago when things were rather different in the province’s health care system. The true irony was that six of the 10 were Liberal ex-Ministers – in other words, the very people responsible for creating the spending crisis in the health care system that the current government is trying to correct. In addition, it is a customary practice in governments that previous ministers, Premiers or Prime Ministers refrain from openly criticizing the policies of their successors. It is actually very inappropriate and borderline rude for these letter writers not to extend this same courtesy to the Ford government, but these days it seems all bets are off and it’s open season on anything this government does.
This week Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office (FAO) published its customary report on the recent provincial budget and its implications for government finances and the economy. As has become the norm for anything the Ford government does these days, much of the media coverage appeared negative. Some of the headlines included “Fiscal Restraint Could Carry Economic Risks”, “Ontario Spending Growth Slowest in 30 Years” and “More Cuts Needed to Balance Ontario Budget”. An actual objective reading of the FAO report, however, reveals that the news was actually quite positive for Ontario’s fiscal outlook.
The last time the abortion issue was prominent in national policy discussions was back in the federal election campaign of 2006, the eventual result of which was a minority Conservative government led by Stephen Harper. At that time, a main focus of anti-conservative forces was endless speculation about the so-called Harper “hidden agenda” which, although never specifically defined, was presumed to include draconian restrictions on abortion rights, among other social conservative things. None of that ever came to pass, but that of course doesn’t stop the same parties from once again trotting out the old abortion scare shibboleth.
This scare was briefly resuscitated prior to the 2018 Ontario election when the provincial Progressive Conservatives were again serious contenders and, ultimately, victors. And once more, nothing happened to change anyone’s access to abortion. Of course facts have never stood in the way of some good old leftist scaremongering, and considering past experience, likely never will.
In their continuing vendetta to oppose absolutely everything the Ford government tries to do, the Toronto Star, the NDP opposition and other forces of the left launched their latest salvo this week, claiming to possess leaked cabinet documents that supposedly contemplated such things as draconian cuts to social services and the privatization of some health-related services in Ontario. The documents apparently contained the warnings of various government employees who stated that lives would be at risk if some of the changes that were reportedly being considered were ever implemented.
It’s worth keeping in mind that government employees will always stand in the way of spending cuts, partly because of their instincts for self-preservation and partly because the culture of government is to always get larger and spend more. In government, there are few if any incentives to be thrifty with tax dollars. And let’s face it – there are not too many things that are as much fun as spending someone else’s money. The current Ontario public service has been marinating in the warm bath of the McGuinty and Wynne big spenders for 15 years now, and old habits are hard to break. Accordingly, much of their advice should be taken with many grains of salt.
The ongoing battle between the Beer Store and the Ontario government ramped up another notch this week with the Beer Store launching an advertising campaign featuring the Canadian curling champion, Glenn Howard, as spokesperson. The Beer Store, having had a monopoly over beer sales in Ontario since 1927 when the province ended prohibition, understandably doesn’t want to give up this immense and profitable privilege. To try to win over the hearts and minds of Ontario consumers, they are predicting all manner of disastrous outcomes for beer drinkers and the Ontario economy should their monopoly end. They have even set up special social media accounts to apprise Ontarians of the so-called “Beer Facts”.
It is no secret that there is no love lost between Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory. Their first serious bout in the ring took place in 2014 when Doug Ford replaced his brother Rob in the race for Mayor of Toronto when Rob’s health challenges prevented him from continuing his campaign. John Tory won that round, garnering just over 40 per cent of the popular vote as compared to Doug Ford’s 34 per cent. However, likely unbeknownst to both men at the time, the real war had not yet begun.
Last week Premier Doug Ford spent a couple of days in New York City promoting Ontario within the context of his theme that the province is now “Open for Business”. Along with Finance Minister Vic Fedelli, the Premier spent a couple of days meeting with various industry leaders, trade representatives and US business media to emphasize the importance of the trading relationship between the province and many US states as well as the focus of this Ontario government on policies such as cutting red tape and reducing excess regulation. It never hurts to remind our American friends of the importance of our economic relationship, considering that two-way trade between Ontario and the US reached almost $400 billion in 2018 and that, if Ontario was a country, it would be the US’s third largest trading partner. Indeed, such promotional pilgrimages to our neighbour to the south are quite common by provincial and federal government leaders of all political stripes.
In the past few weeks we have been inundated with advertising from the various Ontario teachers’ unions telling us what a top-notch education system we have here in Ontario and that any attempt to touch it by the Ford government will surely result in a reduction of the quality of education and a downgrading of student achievement. Teachers’ unions in Ontario have a long history of self-promotion, paid for with large quantities of our tax dollars, but a growing body of research disputes their claim to educational excellence in the province’s public school system. We have already seen repeated results from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) that show about half of primary school students are not meeting basic standards in math and literacy. To add to the research, a new study recently made public focuses on the skill sets of graduating high school students and their preparedness for university. The results are not encouraging.
As the cacophony of opposition continues to pretty much any changes the Ford government makes to bring the province’s books back into solvent territory, some relatively small changes are underway which could cumulatively make a big and positive difference.
A good example of this was a recent announcement that the government had sold a small chunk of land – just under an acre – in downtown Toronto to a developer to be repurposed as rental housing, with about a third of the rental housing constructed slated to be affordable housing. This transaction netted the government $36 million and will save annual maintenance costs of about $260,000 annually. This announcement will not attract much media attention while the larger and louder battles are being fought with teachers unions and others, but this is exactly the type of change that we need more of to reduce government spending obligations in a way that also achieves social policy goals such as, in this case, expanding the stock of affordable places to live. The Ontario government plans to undertake other transactions of this nature in future, having identified almost 500 properties that can be sold and put into more productive use over the next few years.
A recent report by Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office (FAO) assessed the Conservative government’s so-called LIFT program (Low Income Individuals and Families Tax Credit), which eliminated provincial income tax for people earning less than $30,000 annually. It concluded that although the LIFT initiative certainly did benefit low income earners, it did not put as much money in their pocket as the previous Liberals government’s plan to further increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which the LIFT program was intended to replace. The FAO estimated that workers would on average receive $400 per year less under LIFT than if the planned minimum wage hike had proceeded. But this is only part of the story.
Over the last few years we have witnessed significant growth in government deficits in many provinces and federally even as the economy has been growing. Accordingly, there has been speculation in the media and elsewhere over whether deficits really matter. Perhaps we should refer that question to Paul Martin and Jean Chretien who, not so very long ago in the mid-1990s, were faced with the stark reality that a sharp increase in public debt meant that Canada would not be able to borrow any more in international financial markets except at exorbitant interest rates that would hobble our economy. They were forced to slash government spending, sharply reduce transfers to the provinces for health and education, drain the $57 billion surplus built up in the Employment Insurance fund over many years and use a $28 billion surplus in a public sector pension plan, among other things, to pay off the deficit. Through all of these efforts they did manage to get Canada’s finances back on track but disaster was close. Within the last 20 years we have also seen various jurisdictions effectively go bankrupt, including Detroit and Greece among others. In all cases the cause was government spending growth that far outstripped the private sector’s ability to pay for it.
On April 16, the Alberta electorate gave Jason Kenney, United Conservative Party (UCP) leader, a resounding victory over the incumbent NDP government led by Rachel Notley. The numbers were truly impressive. Voter turnout was an amazing 70 per cent, and the UCP garnered 55.2 per cent of the popular vote and 63 seats in an 87 seat legislature. Whenever a conservative-leaning government is elected these days, leftists typically trot out the old chestnut that “he/she wasn’t elected by a majority of the popular vote”. They certainly won’t be able to make that case with Kenney’s landslide win. Of course this argument never seems to apply equally to left-leaning governments that are also usually elected with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote in our first-past-the-post electoral system.
For the last week or two it seems that we are being fed an even larger dosage of “fake news” than usual. Which is saying something. Much of this misinformation has revolved around politics, as it often does. Reaction to last week’s first Ford government budget was a good example. Confounding many who were poised to pounce on the budget for slash and burn spending cuts, the document was actually a disappointment to fiscal conservatives in that it indicated the government plans to take a leisurely approach to balancing the budget and has projected expenditure levels quite comparable to those planned by the former Liberal government. Despite that reality, opposition parties – and the many groups that would deny the sun rose in the east if they thought it would harm the Ford government – still claimed that there were spending cuts in the budget in such key areas as health and education, when in reality spending was increased in both of these areas. In fact, other than some unnecessary silliness about revamping the design of license plates in the province, the first Ford government budget was very much a middle-of-the-road type of document.
In the weeks leading up to the first budget of the Ford government, Finance Minister Vic Fedelli characterized his plans as a “Goldilocks” budget – not too hot, not too cold, but just right. At first blush, an analysis of the main budget themes and spending priorities suggests that he may indeed have achieved that balance, albeit with some important caveats.
There were calls from some quarters to bring Ontario finances back into balance in this budget, but considering the massive deficits and debt accumulated by the previous Liberal government over 15 years, it was a very unrealistic expectation that a government in power for less than a year could eliminate a deficit of $15 billion in such short order. Instead, Finance Minister Fedelli took the more incremental approach of bringing the deficit down to $11.7 billion in this fiscal year, with a plan to continue to reduce deficits in stages over the next few years by constraining expenditures to a growth rate of one per cent annually, with the ultimate goal being a balanced budget in fiscal 2023-24. This means the Ford government has no plans to balance the budget in its first term.
The latest installment of the Ontario government’s ongoing work on the red tape/regulatory issue dropped last week with passage into law of Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act by Minister of Economic Development Todd Smith. This is an omnibus bill that was first introduced in December 2018 and contains changes to a number of different laws and regulations. Going beyond the cutesy name for this piece of legislation – something that all governments of any political stripe seem compelled to do these days with any new law – the Bill undertakes to reduce the regulatory burden in a number of sectors within the agrifood, manufacturing, automobile and construction industries, harmonize regulatory requirements with other jurisdictions, end duplication and reduce barriers to investment in the province.
Earlier this week – on April 1 in fact – the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation published a press release on what the Ford government had done with the so-called Jobs and Prosperity Fund created by the previous Liberal government. But this was no April Fools joke. During the run-up to the 2018 election, Ford and a number of his colleagues had gone as far to call this fund “corrupt” and described it as “corporate welfare”, all of which was true. Past Auditor General reports had criticized this fund as a waste as it handed out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars with no accountability, no tracking and no measurement of results to determine if indeed this spending had any effect on jobs or prosperity. Simply put, this fund is a pork barrel; money to be doled out with no good rationale and no accountability for results, usually on the basis of political favouritism rather than any substantive and worthwhile policy objectives.
One of the many interesting sessions at the recent Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa concerned how to bring governments into the digital age. Governments tend to be late adapters of technology for many reasons. As they don’t operate in competitive markets, governments are not driven to be up-to-date or productive as a private sector company would be to keep up with competitors. In fact, they are often decades behind technological trends that businesses are forced to adopt to remain in business. In addition, as governments are highly unionized environments – and Canadian governments are some of the most unionized in the world – they face union opposition to any use of technology that will replace a job, and therefore reduce the dues paid to unions. For all of the union attacks on capitalism, it is always amusing to see how unions react so very negatively to any of their sources of funds being reduced.
Another year, another Sunshine List from the Ontario government documenting the very large number of government workers who make $100, 000 or more annually. Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions that publishes this kind of information, and their example should be followed by all levels of government. These are our tax dollars after all, paying the people that are supposed to be serving the public considerably more than the identical job in the private sector would earn.
The Sunshine List was originally set up in Ontario by the Mike Harris government in the mid-1990s with the salary benchmark of $100,000. Many people have argued that it should be indexed to inflation, which would mean a threshold of about $150,000 today. Considering that the average Canadian worker earned about $60,000 in 2018, it would seem that continuing to use the $100,000 number makes a lot of sense as that is still much more than the average worker earns.
Last weekend I attended the Manning Centre Conference, an annual event chaired by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning. This get-together is often referred to as “Woodstock for Conservatives”, but without the great music, unfortunately. Needless to say, much of the discussion in the corridors pertained to the unfolding soap opera with the Liberals and the SNC Lavalin scandal. The formal sessions focused on everything from immigration issues, the impact of social media, pipeline politics, environmental policy and digitizing government, among others, and there were keynote addresses by former George W. Bush senior advisor Karl Rove, Andrew Scheer, Doug Ford and General Rick Hillier. All in all an interesting weekend of conservative-oriented discussion and networking.
The federal budget was announced this week, and fully lived down to expectations that it would be a spend-fest of taxpayer dollars aimed exclusively at the goal of winning Liberal votes in this October’s election. There was very little if any good news for Ontario in the budget, and much to be concerned about. One of the most negative aspects of the budget was the fact that despite some revenue windfalls, the Liberals chose to spend these funds instead of paying down even a part of the deficit to prepare for a rainy day. Heavily indebted governments at both provincial and federal levels is bad news for Ontarians and all Canadians as it leaves us very vulnerable to the next recession, which is looking increasingly imminent.
The next Ontario election may be over three years away, but last Friday’s policy announcement by Education Minister Lisa Thompson is being viewed by the province’s teachers unions and school boards as a declaration of war. As these players have effectively been at war with the Conservative government since last year’s election – and were often at war with the previous Liberal government as well – people can be forgiven for asking if anything has changed. There is no question, however, that this latest government move has hit the unions where they live. Many Ontarians would say it’s high time.
Making good on an election promise, this week the Ford government announced that it will be getting rid of the existing so-called “Discovery” method of teaching math to elementary students and promoting a “back to basics” approach in math and some other subjects. More details will be coming out later this week and in the coming months following consultations, but there can be no doubt that the current approach to the vital subject of mathematics in Ontario schools is badly failing students, as for some time now about half of Grade 6 students have not been achieving basic math standards.
Labour market data for February was released late last week, and the news was mostly positive for Canada, but especially good for Ontario. Following a period of slow economic growth in the last few months of 2018, job creation has been on the rise in the first part of this year. In February, Canada added 55,900 jobs, of which 37,000 were in Ontario. In other words, last month saw about two-thirds of total new jobs in Canada created in Ontario. As Ontario represents about 38 per cent of the national economy, this is indeed significant and an indication that Ontario is punching above its weight in the job market. Overall, the first two months of 2019 showed the strongest job growth for Canada in a two-month period since 2012, and the best results for January and February since 1981. Not too shabby.
Maybe it’s just the time of year, but there has been much discussion of late about personal income taxes and their impact on government revenues and the economy. Among the many accusations leveled against the Ford government by the opposition parties and others is that one of the policy changes made early in the new government’s tenure was to give a tax break to the “rich”. That claim was erroneous though, as what the Ford government actually did was cancel an additional tax on high income earners planned by the previous Liberal government, not reduce any taxes on them. A look at the facts shows that high income earners in Ontario continue to be fleeced by the tax system in a big way.
A welcome development in recent days was the announcement by the Ford government to put an end to “March Madness”. Before basketball fans get up in arms, it needs to be said that this definition of March Madness has to do with the annual spending spree that takes place in many governments before the end of the fiscal year. For years it has been documented that government employees go on a spend-fest at this time of year to empty out any funds that may remain in their budgets, as they fear their budgets will be reduced in future if they do not use them up. A recent instance of this at the federal level was the rush purchase of 31,000 smart phones last year around this time. Past examples have included massive purchases of “art” for government offices, unneeded computers and other equipment and office furniture, among other things. At the federal level, the Harper government had some success with discouraging these types of spending sprees, but the return of the big-spending Liberals in Ottawa seems to have changed that as evidenced by the last-minute smart phone order last year.
The Ford government plans to end the fiscal year-end frenzy by ending authorizations for any spending during this period that had not already been planned and undertaking closer monitoring of departmental spending in general. Hopefully they will proceed to the next step, which is implementing a new budgeting system that does not just carry forward spending amounts from the previous year, but requires every expenditure to be justified on an annual basis – so-called zero base budgeting.
Late last week, Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford announced some new parameters for executive compensation at Hydro One. Going forward, compensation for the CEO is to be capped at $1.5 million total, with $500,000 of that in salary and the remainder in performance incentives. This compares to the infamous and excessive CEO compensation of $6 million accorded to the previous CEO under the Liberal government. In addition, Hydro One Board member compensation is not to exceed $80,000 annually and $120,000 for the Board Chair. These levels are significantly lower than used to be the case, although still generous. They also compare favourably to compensation levels at Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and similar utilities in other provinces.
Difficult as it is to avert our eyes from the unbelievable and perversely entertaining political farce taking place in Ottawa at present, things continue to happen in Ontario. This week the Ontario government finally reached a deal with the province’s doctors after years of acrimony. Doctors had been without a contract since 2014 and had been at war with the previous Liberal government, and subsequently the current Conservative government, since that time. Monies paid to physicians amount to about $12 billion annually, which represents almost a quarter of the overall health care budget. Conflict between doctors and the government is a foregone conclusion, especially when money is tight.
It is pretty difficult to imagine spring right now as Ontario remains mired in a snowy deep freeze, but the Ontario legislature will resume sitting this week after the winter break and launch the spring legislative session. The Ford government has been very busy in its scant eight months in power. Many of its actions to date have been to initiate consultation and/or research processes on a number of important issues. Those processes are now winding up, and the really big – and big ticket – items on the government’s balance sheet are slated to be dealt with in the coming months. Decisions made in this period will be vitally important and set the tone for the rest of the Ford government’s term, and affect its re-election prospects down the road.
Earlier this week, the Toronto Star ran a rather disturbing headline – “Chair for GTA conservation authority elected after behind-the-scenes lobbying”. This certainly made things sound like there was some type of skullduggery going on that should raise alarm bells. A read of the actual story, however, told a different tale.
The story concerned the fact that the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), which helps oversee and protect the Greenbelt, Oak Ridges Moraine & some other areas had elected a new Chair in Jennifer Innis, who was previously a Caledon regional councilor and had been a member of the TRCA board since 2014. Ms. Innis ousted a long-serving former Chair, Maria Augimeri, who had been a Toronto city councilor until losing her seat in last autumn’s election.
Earlier this week the government employee who leaked at least one confidential government document on health care reform to the opposition NDP, and perhaps more than one, was identified and fired. The matter was also referred to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), although it is unclear at this time whether an investigation will be conducted. In response, NDP leader Andrea Horwath naturally made a big deal out of this leak, claiming the contents of the leaked document showed the government’s intention to privatize health care and other nefarious things, despite the fact that the document said nothing of the sort. When the government noted that the OPP had been consulted, Horwath was very critical and made the strange comment that bringing in the police could discourage future “whistle-blowers”. It is outrageous to compare someone who has breached the terms of their employment by leaking a confidential and politically volatile document to a true whistle-blower, which is someone who reveals wrongdoing and possibly illegality in the workplace in an attempt to stop it. Horwath’s thoughtless comment is dishonest and denigrates the important role of an actual whistle-blower.
Early in their tenure, the Ford government made the reduction of red tape in Ontario a priority. Although never a “sexy” issue that is likely to garner congratulatory headlines for a government, the elimination of unnecessary laws and regulations is nevertheless vitally important for business and other citizens as it reduces excessive costs on taxpayers and frees up businesses to establish new firms, expand and hire in the province.
Last month, my former alma mater, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) held their annual Red Tape Awareness Week and awarded the “Golden Scissors” award to Premier Doug Ford for the removal of most of the provisions of Bill 148. This bill, hastily introduced by the Wynne Liberals in the dying days of their government, was a hugely intrusive and imbalanced piece of legislation that imposed a raft of new and onerous red tape requirements on businesses. Bill 148 also had privacy implications for employees as unions were now to be permitted virtually unfettered access to employees’ personal information without their consent. Getting rid of most of Bill 148 was in and of itself a big step in reducing red tape.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government have taken on a number of sensitive issues in their term to date, but this week they started to deal with the motherlode – health care. The first report of the Premier’s Council on improving health care in the province, headed up by Dr. Reuben Devlin, was tabled on Thursday. Some of the main findings of the report were that people were waiting too long for health care procedures and were often getting that care in locations that were less than optimal. As many as 1,000 patients daily are receiving so-called “hallway healthcare”, being treated in hospital corridors or other inappropriate locations instead of hospital rooms. It was observed that a large proportion of emergency department and walk-in clinic patients could have been treated more effectively by a family doctor or nurse-practitioner. The report also noted a lack of co-ordination and strategic oversight of the various parts of the Ontario health care system, a lack of accountability for outcomes, and that technology could be deployed much more effectively than it is currently. Reading the report, my first reaction was “Tell us something we don’t already know.” The Council is expected to release a second report in the spring, which will contain suggested remedies for the many serious and growing problems in the health care system. Hopefully that second installment will do more than just reiterate the obvious.
When Premier Doug Ford made a speech to the Economic Club of Canada last week, he raised the possibility that a recession could be sparked in Canada by the federal government’s carbon tax and much hilarity ensued. A number of economists from banks and other quarters such as the federally-funded Eco-Fiscal Commission pooh-poohed the notion that the carbon tax could spark a recession, and implied that this was a naïve and ill-informed musing on Ford’s part.
It is true that a recession is rarely caused by any one tax or other factor, but it is becoming pretty difficult to ignore the storm clouds hovering over the Canadian economy, which are growing by the day. We regularly see news stories about how Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque and that personal bankruptcy numbers have begun to climb. Canadians’ debt-to-disposable-income ratio was over 170 per cent at the end of last year, close to an all-time high. The Bank of Canada is not predicting a recession for this year, but then of course they never would as such a statement would spook markets profoundly. Bank of Canada Governor Poloz has however expressed much more caution of late and has held off further increases in interest rates for the time being.
In its relatively brief tenure to date, the Ford government has taken on a number of controversial issues. But now that they are flirting with changing the cap on public school class sizes, they have really touched the third rail. Although this was just announced this week, the always-militant teachers’ unions are already losing their collective minds, and it can only get worse.
Class sizes in Ontario are currently capped at 29 for kindergarten, with the caveat that average class size cannot exceed 26 students. For primary school, the cap is 23 while 90 per cent of classes in any school board must be 20 or less. The argument in favour of smaller class sizes arises from the belief that students do better in a smaller class. The actual evidence from the voluminous research on this topic is mixed at best. Some studies have shown advantages to smaller class sizes, while others have demonstrated little if any value. School principals and other administrators also claim that having a fixed cap on class sizes limits their flexibility to customize classes to best fit the student body at any given time. The infamous Drummond report, commissioned by the Liberals and published in 2012, concluded that there was insignificant evidence to justify the added cost of smaller class sizes and recommended larger class sizes be implemented. The Liberals ignored this finding as well as many other sensible recommendations of that report.
Last week the Ontario government announced changes to the funding of post-secondary education, the focal point of which was a 10 per cent cut to tuition fees for domestic students in 2019-2020 and a tuition freeze for the following year. There was also a reduction of the grant component of the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Post-secondary education funding was last changed by the Liberals in 2016, when the “free” tuition plan was introduced. The cost of that plan far exceeded Liberal projections – as was the case with pretty much all Liberal spending plans – and is currently a very expensive program of over $2 billion annually.
Premier Doug Ford had spoken some months ago of his interest in examining the issue of local government reform in Ontario, and this week he formally announced a consultative process to review eight regional governments in the province, encompassing 82 municipalities in total. The objective is to investigate opportunities to reduce red tape, eliminate duplication, save money and enhance local service delivery. Consultations are slated to take place in the spring of this year.
As could be expected, reactions were mixed, with many regional politicians welcoming a review and others being concerned that changes were likely to be imposed on them as opposed to being implemented in concert with local officials. The spectre of the City of Toronto council reduction is still fresh in the minds of many municipal politicians that fear the same sort of ax could be wielded in their backyard. NDP MPP Jeff Burch commented that Ford was “meddling in municipalities”, which is a foolish comment considering that the province has full jurisdiction over municipal affairs and is completely entitled to structure local governments as they see fit. That being said, it makes eminent sense to pursue any changes on a consultative basis and that is exactly what this review purports to be doing.
This week Ontario Premier Ford is heading to Detroit for the annual North American International Auto
Show (NAIAS). He is slated to meet with a number of auto manufacturing executives and labour leaders, including Jerry Dias of Unifor. According to reports, Ford’s main message will be that Ontario is “open for business” and there will be a focus on how to retain current auto manufacturing jobs in the province as well as fostering future growth in the sector.
Apparently, Ford will not be offering corporate welfare, special tax incentives or other inducements, but rather will highlight plans to reduce the burden of government red tape in Ontario which has been crushing businesses both large and small for some time, and to make factors such as record-high hydro rates more competitive in future.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is undertaking a Charter challenge of the Ontario government’s actions to change the sex education curriculum, and the proceeding began this week. The basis of the case is that by temporarily reverting to the curriculum that originated in 1998, but was in place as recently as 2015, the government’s actions are unconstitutional as they purportedly put children at risk by failing to be inclusive and do not meet the needs of today’s students. The union claims to be fighting for the students. This is pretty tough to swallow since Ontario teachers’ unions clearly couldn’t care less about students when they encourage teachers to go on strike, enforce “work-to-rule” conditions, cease extra-curricular activities or engage in other disruptive workplace practices. Serious issues such as the fact that about half of Ontario’s Grade 6 students fail to meet basic math standards don’t even register as a blip on the unions’ radar screens. It is most probable that the courts will reject the EFTO’s lawsuit, while valuable court resources and taxpayer dollars are tied up in this effort that has much more to do with trying to make the Ford government look bad than any interests of the students or even most teachers.
The practice of “carding”, wherein police officers randomly stop an individual, collect identifying information and retain it in a database, has been used to varying extents in Ontario since the 1950s. In recent years, it has become highly controversial as it became clear that a disproportionate number of the people carded belonged to certain identifiable groups, notably people of colour and those of indigenous heritage. There were periods of time when quotas were even established for carding, which led to all kinds of abuses by some police officers. In 2016 new regulations were brought in by the Wynne government to supposedly stop the practice of randomly “carding” people that were doing nothing wrong, but it seemed to lead to more confusion than anything else as the wording of the regulations was unclear and convoluted .
In an attempt to establish some badly-needed clarity on the issue of carding, a comprehensive report overseen by Ontario Appeal Court Judge Michael Tulloch was made public last week. One thing the report clearly lays out is the difference between “street checks” and carding. Street checks are the legitimate collection of information in a situation where there is reasonable evidence that something untoward is going on, whereas carding is typically undertaken when there is no tangible reason for suspecting the individual except perhaps that they are out late at night, are in a certain neighbourhood, or that a police officer has a quota to fill.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has been in power for barely six months, but has already made a number of significant changes to the operation of the province. Despite the torrid pace of the past few months, Premier Ford stated in year-end interviews that he has no plans to slow down in 2019.
There are a number of issues that are certain to be on the agenda in the coming year. Changes are underway on the three biggest ticket items in Ontario’s budget – health care, education and social services. In health care, the government has been working to eliminate so-called “hallway health care” by increasing the number of hospital beds and establishing new health care facilities. Education reform will continue to focus on fixing the failing math curriculum, enhancing the skilled trades, improving standardized testing and introducing a Parents Bill of Rights. Undoubtedly, the ever-controversial sex-ed component will get lots of attention too in the coming months, likely with more heat than light on the topic. On social services, the government announced their plans for reform late in 2018, but with many of the specifics yet to be determined.
Ringing in the new year of 2019 will be accompanied by some new taxes for Ontarians, layered on top of the existing tax load which currently takes just under half on average of every worker’s paycheque. One of these taxes is the carbon tax, imposed on Ontario and several other provinces by the federal Liberal government supposedly because Ontario and the other affected provinces have not come up with a climate plan sufficiently acceptable to the Liberals in Ottawa. Although there has been a great deal of debate and discussion of the carbon tax, there is still much uncertainty about exactly how it will apply, whether Ontario’s recently-announced climate strategy is at all acceptable to the federal government and how the various court challenges of the federal carbon tax by Ontario and other provincial governments will pan out. As the federal Liberals saw opposition climbing throughout 2018 to their climate strategy and especially the carbon tax, they cooked up a rebate scheme by which they claim that most Canadians will receive more in rebates than they actually pay in carbon tax. Anyone buying into that whopper really does need to have their head examined. The only certainty with the carbon tax is that it will cost us all money, continue to be a contentious high profile issue throughout 2019 and a key factor in elections taking place federally and in Alberta.
Economics is often referred to as the dismal science. After almost a decade of global economic growth, there are indeed more and more dismal economic indicators starting to appear as 2018 comes to a close. In Ontario and most of urban Canada, the real estate market has been a major driver of economic growth in recent years but is now slowing markedly. Federal policy changes are making it more difficult to qualify for mortgages by introducing a “stress test”, as increasing interest rates and cyclical factors have all contributed to the slowdown in this important sector that drives a significant proportion of overall economic activity. Strong growth in residential housing values in recent years along with low interest rates encouraged consumers to take on debt, to the extent that household debt/disposable income is now at 170 per cent – a Canadian record. Personal bankruptcies are also on the rise, and depending on the survey, anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent of Canadians are currently feeling overwhelmed by debt.
As we come to the close of 2018, it’s a great time to reflect on all of the changes Ontario has seen in the last 12 months. And boy oh boy, have there been big changes! The biggest of course was the final ouster of a Liberal government that had ruled for almost 15 years – a very long reign in Canadian politics – and its replacement by a Progressive Conservative (PC) majority government.
Prior to the June election, the Liberal government was throwing money at everyone and everything in a last-ditch attempt to be re-elected. As it became more and more clear that the Liberals were going to be trounced, all of these last-minute spending announcements also had the effect of laying many traps for the incoming Conservatives, which was put in the position of having to renege on virtually all of the spending extravaganza. Even if the Liberals had won the election, the dire state of the provinces finances would have required them to back off these many spending promises too, but the PC victory meant they were stuck with the mess. The election also led to the NDP assuming the role of official opposition, setting up many pitched battles in the legislature that are sure to continue for the next few years.
Last week, bond rating agency Moody’s played the Grinch, downgrading the credit rating of the province of Ontario from Aa2 to Aa3. A few days later, seven Ontario public agencies – including three hospitals and Ryerson University – also had their credit ratings reduced. The last time the credit rating was downgraded for the province was in 2012, when growing debt and doubt surrounding the then-Liberal government being able to meet its budget targets compelled rating agencies to reduce the rating at that time.
The reasoning behind the most recent credit rating change included the fact that the Ontario government has conceded that it will likely run deficits for the next few years, and that the Ford government had undertaken some changes that would reduce government revenues, such as the cancellation of the cap-and-trade program and some fuel and income tax reductions. Although it is true that these measures will mean a drop in government revenues in the short term and will therefore increase deficits, it would be hoped that they will stimulate the economy overall, leading to increased government revenues down the road. Rating agencies do not typically take the long view, however, and focus on the short-term ability of governments to meet their financial obligations.
The latest news from our perpetually disruptive union brethren is that the workers at Ontario Power Generation (OPG) are threatening to strike in the next few weeks if their demands are not met. Last Friday the Power Workers Union (PWU) filed a notice that they intend to go on strike in 21 days. OPG provides about half of the electricity in Ontario, so any disruption in service – especially in the middle of winter – would be a serious situation to say the least. If defies belief that a union involved in providing heat and light to such a significant number of Ontarians would have the right to strike in the first place. If that doesn’t meet the definition of an essential service, I don’t know what does.
The Ford government responded quickly to this PWU announcement, stating that despite the previous plan to dissolve the legislature for the Christmas break, they would now recall MPPs this week to introduce legislation to ensure power workers stay on the job. We can expect lots of drama in the days ahead as the Official Opposition NDP whine and moan about workers’ rights and the integrity of the collective bargaining process. But how absurd is it that a group of extremely well-paid hydro employees can threaten to disrupt a service that can, without exaggeration, be considered life threatening if it is compromised?
As a last hoorah before shutting down the Ontario legislature for the Christmas break, the Ford government announced that they were extending the existing program to encourage public sector workers to voluntarily accept buy-outs. There has been a program in place since 2013 available to regular Ontario Public Service (OPS) employees and the recent announcement will extend this program on a time-limited basis to up to 10,000 non-union management and other employees not previously included. The laudable goal is to reduce the size of the public sector in the least painful way possible by encouraging people to take advantage of buy-outs voluntarily instead of being fired.
There is no doubt that some downsizing of the Ontario public sector is needed. During the Liberals’ time in office, private sector employment increased by under 10 per cent while public sector employment ballooned by 25 per cent. We also know that during that period, average incomes stagnated and government debt skyrocketed. Some sensible reduction in the size and cost of the provincial government is long overdue.
The Ford government has moved very quickly to rectify a number of damaging labour law changes that were hastily introduced in the dying days of the former Liberal government to curry favour with their union friends. As part of an omnibus piece of legislation introduced last week – Bill 66 entitled Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act – the requirement for union-only procurement on public projects undertaken by municipalities, universities and other public bodies, is to die a well-deserved death.
The whole concept of restricting government construction projects to businesses that were unionized, and in some cases only to businesses whose employees belonged to a particular union, came about as a result of some underhanded maneuvering by unions over the past 20 years or so to convince the Ontario Labour Relations Board to declare that entire municipalities and other public sector employers were to be deemed “construction employers”. Entities designated as construction employers were required to limit tendering to unionized companies or companies whose employees belonged to a specific union. This is a ridiculous policy for any major project, but especially so when public funds are involved. Research has shown that policies of this type raise the cost of projects by as much as 40 to 60 per cent of what they would be if open tendering was permitted. This change alone will save taxpayers many millions of dollars – potentially billions over time – and open up projects to capable, tax-paying businesses that are well able to take on these projects but don’t happen to be unionized. The fact that this foolish and costly policy was ever implemented in the first place is a testament to overly union-friendly governments that put the interests of narrow interest groups ahead of those of taxpayers and the stability of public finances.
This week’s report of the Auditor General (AG) is likely the last one that will be welcomed by the Ford government for some time to come. Ontario is blessed with a very competent and thorough AG in Bonnie Lysyk, and she once again identified a number of areas of wasteful or ineffective spending that at this juncture can be laid at the feet of the previous Liberal government. Going forward, annual Ontario AG reports will be identifying government waste on the Ford government’s watch, so they should enjoy the moment while they still can.
This year, the AG identified widespread problems in many different areas of government activity. This quote from Ms. Lysyk is telling: “A central finding in almost all of the audits this year was that spending of public monies did not consistently result in the cost-effective achievement of anticipated program benefits, or the proactive addressing of program risks”. This is auditor-speak for “the government wasted a ton of your money this year, with no accountability or even concern about the funds being spent usefully, and without putting systems in place to ensure the waste does not continue in future”.
Last week saw the announcement of the long-awaited environmental policy of the Ford government. The legislation had the usual long and tedious name that seems to be de rigueur for all legislation these days, being entitled “Preserving and Protecting our Environment for Future Generations: A Made-in-Ontario Environmental Plan”.
In the context of the announcement, Environment Minister Rod Phillips noted that Ontario was actually more than two-thirds of the way toward meeting its 2030 emissions targets – those targets set by the federal Liberal government which remained unchanged from those established by the previous Harper government. The main reason Ontario has made such progress is a result of the phasing out of coal in the province by the previous Liberal government, and Phillips credited them accordingly. Going forward, the government plans to establish an Ontario Carbon Trust, initially with $400 million taxpayer dollars over a four-year period, which will be used to incent companies that create and implement carbon reduction technologies. Industry-specific emissions standards will also be established, with monetary penalties imposed on businesses that fail to meet these standards added to Ontario Carbon Trust coffers. Other elements of the strategy include such items as increasing the ethanol component in fuel, reducing methane-producing organic waste and community level initiatives to promote waste reduction and cleaner waterways, among other things. A carbon tax was nowhere in sight.
In retrospect, the enormous flapdoodle that has erupted over changes by the Ontario government to French language services was probably predictable. The whole bilingualism issue has always been a touchy hot button over which many political battles have been waged. As is always the case with war, the first casualty is truth.
When examining what the government actually changed, it would be difficult to see such an outpouring of opposition for most other issues. The proposed changes to French language services did not involve reduced spending, but rather a realignment of the bureaucracy that oversaw such services. The changes included the elimination of the French language commissioner, whose functions were to be moved to the Ontario Ombudman’s portfolio where there is perfectly adequate capacity to handle them. There was also the matter of the cancellation of the last-minute announcement by the previous Liberal government of a French language university. Because several well-established French universities already exist in the province, it is difficult to justify creating a new school of this type, especially when the finances of the provinces had been left in such dire straits by the Liberals.
Wow. If we ever needed confirmation of how uncompetitive Canada’s economy has become, this has to be it. General Motors, which has had a strong presence in Oshawa since the early 1900s, and used to employ as many as 40,000 workers in Canada, is abandoning its flagship location. The company plans to shut down all Oshawa operations by next year at this time, at the cost of almost 3,000 jobs directly, and several more thousand indirectly in the community.
This is a huge blow to Oshawa, and a warning signal to Canadian governments. Although most governments in Canada claim to be concerned about business competitiveness, they have done precious little to help. Last week’s economic update by federal finance minister Morneau was a case in point. Although Morneau introduced an improved accelerated depreciation treatment for investments in certain sectors, it was much too little, much too late. With our major economic competitor south of the border having drastically slashed corporate income tax rates and costly red tape, some tinkering with depreciation rates can hardly compete.
This week, the Ontario government gave the first indication of where it plans to go in reforming the two major social assistance programs in the province, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The government had previously announced changes to these programs – reducing the planned increase in benefits for next year from 3 per cent to 1.5 per cent and cancelling the basic income pilot project – so it was under considerable pressure to announce what it was planning next. The total social assistance budget is currently around $10 billion, so this is not a minor expenditure for the province.
This week’s announcement contained some improvements, but many questions remain. One improvement involves permitting welfare recipients to keep $300 of income earned per month without suffering a reduction in benefits, instead of the previous limit of $200. For ODSP recipients, they may now earn $6,000 annually without penalty, up from $2400. Coupled with the tax measure that eliminates income tax on people making less than $30,000 per year, these changes should provide a greater incentive to seek employment, instead of simply remaining on assistance.
Now that we’ve had a few days to look over the Ontario PC government’s first financial document – the 2018 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review – there is more clarity about the government’s major priorities and how it intends to achieve them. But it is primarily a directional document, with many plans for reviews and studies in various areas, as opposed to detailed prescriptive actions. Mind you, that is not surprising for a government that has only been in place less than six months.
The Review certainly indicates a sharp change in direction from the previous Liberal government. For instance, instead of dictating labour policy in ways such as forced minimum wage increases, this government will assist lower income workers by eliminating provincial income tax for those earning less than $30,000. This is a preferable approach as it helps those who need it, while avoiding distorting the labour market and eliminating entry-level and part-time jobs by imposing sharp minimum wage hikes. The PCs have also prioritized the reduction of red tape, something that the previous government increased with abandon. This is welcome news to businesses, and especially small businesses which bear the lion’s share of the red tape burden. Other sensible moves to address urgent issues include: removing rent controls on new apartment units to encourage construction, reversing the previous government’s plans to go along with the federal government’s increase in taxation on the so-called “passive income” of small businesses, cancelling the plan for yet another surtax for high income earners, and ending subsidies for political parties by 2022, among other things. In keeping with this government’s promise to provide better transparency than their predecessors – which would not be difficult given the Liberals’ propensity for obfuscation and deception in their financial reporting – the Review was actually more straightforward and readable than versions we’ve seen over the past few years.
Following the June 2018 Ontario election, there was much discussion around how the Liberal party did not win enough seats to achieve official “recognized” party status. At that time, the threshold for official party status was set at eight seats in the legislature, and the Liberals only managed to win seven. The Liberals then appealed to the victorious Progressive Conservatives to bend the rules and grant them official status, despite their not having won the requisite number of seats. It was an interesting show of chutzpah on their part, considering that back in 2003 when the NDP did not win enough seats for official party status and asked the governing Liberals to alter the rules in their favour, the Liberals refused. But then, Liberals have never been short on chutzpah.
Official party status is kind of a big deal. Along with the appropriate bragging rights, it means considerably more resources to be able to devote to research, staff payroll and other key functions of a political party. Without official status, MPPs are required to sit as independents in the legislature, with limited ability to participate on the same basis as MPPs of an official party in debates, Question Period and other goings-on. Not having official status is a major impediment for a political party in many ways.
We regularly hear from governments of all political stripes about how very devoted they are to “evidence-based” policies. Yet upon examination, many governments ignore the actual evidence to pursue policies that conform to their ideological beliefs rather than the facts. A good example was Ontario’s previous Liberal governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne. These governments consistently ignored the advice of experts on issues ranging from hydro policy to minimum wages, and instead followed their own personal biases and implemented disastrous policies which Ontarians are still paying for today. Justin Trudeau’s federal government also made a big deal out of their supposed “evidence-based” policy approach, then pushed ahead with such things as dramatic changes to small business taxation and big-spending fiscal practices that the experts told them to avoid, with predictable negative consequences.
Ontarians were surprised this week to find there had been a mini-Cabinet shuffle in the Ford government. It’s unusual for a government that has only been in power for a few months to change any of their Ministers. But once the details started to come out, things began to make a lot more sense.
In this era of #MeToo, there is zero tolerance of anyone who has been accused of any type of sexual impropriety, whether or not there is any proof that such a thing actually took place. The Cabinet shuffle, which involved six portfolios, was apparently triggered by the resignation of veteran MPP and Minister Jim Wilson based on allegations of sexual misconduct. The initial announcement of Mr. Wilson’s stepping down said it was because of his need for treatment for substance abuse, but later the claims of sexual misconduct were revealed. When questioned as to why the initial announcement did not mention the sexual misconduct details, the Ford government stated that they were trying to protect the rights of the accuser. Wilson did not only depart Cabinet but also left the Conservative caucus and will now sit as an independent MPP. Wilson’s former post as Minister of Economic Development and Trade will be taken over by House Leader Todd Smith.
Over the past few weeks, it has become clear that the defining issue of the 2019 federal election will be the carbon tax. Prime Minister Trudeau is increasingly staking his reputation and that of his government on their commitment to imposing a federal carbon tax on the country, even as a growing number of provinces elect governments who have campaigned on an anti-carbon tax platform. So, given the high profile this issue will have in the months leading up to the next federal election, it’s a good time to do a recap of where Canada currently stands.
Although Trudeau now claims he was elected in 2015 to implement a carbon tax with the full support of Canadians, the truth is actually quite different. Trudeau did mention “putting a price on carbon” in the run-up to the election, but was very vague as to any specifics. Since that time, Canadians in several provinces have seen carbon taxes implemented in a number of different forms. Having now experienced the reality instead of the pleasantly painless theory, many have decided they don’t like it and have subsequently voted for provincial governments that openly and emphatically oppose a carbon tax. The election of the staunchly anti-carbon tax Doug Ford government in Ontario this past summer added considerable momentum to this fight.
While most of the focus on trade issues in recent months has been on NAFTA renegotiations, the long-standing difficulties of the provincial and federal governments to accomplish a more liberalized trading environment within Canada remain unresolved. The latest pan-Canadian attempt to tilt at this particular windmill resulted in the so-called Canadian Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), signed on to by all provinces with much fanfare in mid-2017. Like all of the Trudeau government’s initiatives, the CFTA was hailed by the Prime Minister as a singular triumph and a major breakthrough on a long-standing issue. Yet` once again, like pretty much all of the Trudeau government’s initiatives, the boastful hype far outstripped actual progress. In fact, the CFTA to date has been a major disappointment.
A recent meeting between Ontario Premier Ford and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe may have breathed new life into the whole issue of interprovincial trade barriers. Although the two provinces’ opposition to the federal carbon tax regime once again captured most of the headlines around this meeting, Ford and Moe also stated that they wanted to prioritize policies to free up trade between Ontario and Saskatchewan and signed a Memorandum of Understanding to this effect.
One of the issues for business that never gets the attention it deserves is that of “red tape”, defined as the plethora of rules, regulations and other requirements that government imposes on businesses and, in turn, on individual citizens. Despite the fact that taxes get most of the attention in discussions of competitiveness – and taxation is a very important issue for businesses – surveys by business groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Chambers of Commerce and others show that the perennial number two issue after taxes is red tape. And red tape is far from just a nuisance, which it surely is, but also imposes substantial costs on an economy and is a major drag on competitiveness.
Of course, sensible regulation is essential and an important part of the job of any government. But far too much regulation comes about not to accomplish reasonable things such as ensure safety in workplaces, establish and enforce proper standards in important professions or oversee a safe food supply, for example. Instead, much regulation comes about as a result of one special interest group or another lobbying government to put in place measures to protect them from competitors or from overly ambitious governments engaging in “regulatory creep” as they encroach on areas that have no need for government oversight or that another level of government is already dealing with effectively.
The unions and the rest of their left-leaning brethren have once again shown their true colours this week with violence, vandalism and death threats for Ontario conservative politicians. This is nothing new for this gang, who frequently lower themselves to thuggery when they find themselves not getting their way. It was behavior more befitting a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum when denied some candy than supposed grown-ups dealing with policies enacted by a duly elected government.
This latest bozo eruption involved vandalizing Labour Minister Laurie Scott’s constituency office and leveling death threats against Premier Doug Ford, ostensibly for introducing the “Making Ontario Open for Business Act”, which reversed many of the extreme anti-business measures contained in the previous Liberal government’s Bill 148. Of course, no one has claimed responsibility for these foolish and illegal acts. Deep down, bullies are always cowards, and if the perpetrators were truly committed to their point of view, they should not be hiding under the cloak of anonymity.
The Ontario government has made some fairly minor changes to hydro policy in their short time in office to date, but has not addressed the elephant in the room – sky-high hydro rates that are hurting the competitiveness of the provincial economy and damaging the finances of residential users. There was a time when Ontario’s very attractive hydro costs were a boon to the economy and something the province regularly cited as a major competitive advantage for the province. It is time we returned to those days, and the Ford government has expressed its willingness to achieve this goal.
The latest development in the ongoing saga of Doug Ford, the cap-and-trade/carbon tax situation and the province’s finances has hit the news. It involves a recent report by Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer, Peter Weltman, that getting rid of the Liberal’s cap-and-trade program will mean a $3 billion shortfall to provincial revenues. The media coverage of this report was pretty much uniformly negative. Yet what it really means is that Ontarians will now have $3 billion more in their wallets rather than in the coffers of government. The news also puts the lie to any remaining belief that this form of “putting a price on carbon” was even remotely revenue-neutral, and that it was after all just another tax grab to boost government revenues.
Right from the start, the cap-and-trade concept was suspect. The European Union was one of the first regions to adopt such a system back in 2005, and it has been rife with problems ever since. Cap-and-trade is a complicated and expensive means of dealing with environmental issues as it entails setting up a market where carbon credits are traded among businesses on the basis of whether the emissions of a particular business are over or under a government-mandated level. The European system basically ended up full of fraud as corporations became adept at gaming the system with significant negative impacts on the economy and much less-than-expected environmental benefits.
It seems we don’t have to look at the funny pages to find humour in the news these days. Last week, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) President Smokey Thomas challenged Premier Doug Ford to a debate on the topic of Ford’s “irresponsible” plan to sell cannabis through private sector stores instead of government-controlled retailers. Thomas even stated, apparently with a straight face, that Ford “can even stack the room with his army of Harperite lackeys.” Hilarilty ensues. This kind of comment is especially hilarious since it is the unions that specialize in regularly stacking their meetings and press conferences with people paid to behave like trained seals.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford took his show on the road last week, with a trip out west to meet with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier-in-waiting Jason Kenney. By all accounts, this trip was a roaring success, with fruitful meetings and large rallies of wildly cheering supporters in both provinces. The main focus of these meetings was Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax, and how all three governments were working together to oppose the forced imposition of this tax on their citizens. As a bonus, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister reversed his province’s prior support for the carbon tax at about the same time.
The carbon tax is not the only federal government policy these Premiers are opposing, however, as they also are very critical of the Trudeau government’s high tax, big spending fiscal approach, chaotic open border refugee policies, the lack of progress on many large-scale resource projects and pipelines, expansion of the public sector and catering to unions at the expense of most taxpayers, among others. What this all spells is big trouble for Trudeau in the 2019 federal election.
It is a much-discussed phenomena that the majority of the so-called mainstream media in Canada – the established newspapers, radio and television networks – tend to favour a left-leaning news perspective. In some instances, this is not surprising. For example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is typically funded from the public purse more lavishly when a Liberal government is in power in Ottawa. Shortly after being elected in 2015, the Trudeau government poured several hundred million more taxpayer dollars into the CBC than the $1 billion or so they were already receiving, so their subsequent cheerleading for Trudeau and all things Liberal doesn’t exactly come as a big shock. What is surprising in the case of the CBC is that there are still some Canadians who actually believe their coverage is fairly balanced.
This past week, a number of media spokespeople expressed shock – shock! – that the Ford government planned to get rid of the labour relations and employment standards Bill 148, introduced by the previous Liberal government as a big thank-you to the unions who had propped up the Liberal government for so very long, at the expense of all other Ontarians. Leading up to the election earlier this year, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives had frequently expressed their opposition to the restrictive and punitive contents of Bill 148, so why it should come as a surprise to anyone paying attention that they wanted to reverse it is a mystery.
Provincial governments across Canada got a wake-up call this week from the annual tome entitled “Fiscal Sustainability Report” from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which outlined the looming armageddon for provincial finances in Canada. No provinces were spared bad news, although the situation is more dire in some provinces than in others. The report essentially looks forward 20 to 30 years and forecasts the amount of debt that the various provinces will be facing at that time if current trends continue.
The coming year promises to be a very interesting one for political junkies in Canada, with a number of provincial elections on the agenda as well as the federal election in October 2019. The New Brunswick election just took place this past Monday and ended in a virtual deadlock, with the provincial Conservatives winning 22 seats to the Liberals’ 21, and 3 seats each for the Greens and the People’s Alliance party. Recounts are underway and at this time there is no certainty about which party will ultimately end up in power, or even if another election is on the horizon for the near future.
The next provincial election is scheduled for October 1 in Quebec, where the incumbent Liberals are neck-and-neck with the more right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) party, an amalgamation of Quebec nationalists and federalists, was founded relatively recently in 2011. Although the Liberals, led by Premier Couillard, have been quite fiscally conservative during their time in power, a win by the CAQ would likely mean a shift to the right in Quebec politics. Next month will also see municipal elections in a number of Canadian provinces, including here in Ontario.
It has become so predictable that it is almost a cliché. A new government is elected, takes a little time to get the lay of the land, and then declares that – lo and behold – the financial situation left by the previous administration is worse than expected! And this scenario regularly takes place no matter the political stripe of the outgoing or incoming government.
History repeated itself last week as the Ford government publicized the report of the Independent Financial Commission of Inquiry, which found the actual deficit for the current fiscal year was not $6.7 billion as the previous Liberal government had claimed, nor was it the $11.7 billion Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk had estimated after factoring in irregularities that Ms. Lysyk had identified as wrongly accounted for by the Liberals. No, the Commission found that the actual deficit was a staggering $15 billion – more than double what was claimed by the Liberals.
OK everybody take a valium. It’s time to calm down, stop the desk-pounding, foot stomping and yelling and screaming. The notwithstanding clause will likely not be used in Ontario for the first time ever, so the rights and freedoms of Ontarians are safe and democracy will live to fight another day.
On Wednesday, a panel of three judges on the Ontario Court of Appeal granted the Ford government’s request for a stay of the previous court decision that ruled the government’s legislation to reduce the size of Toronto City Council from 47 to 25 seats was unconstitutional and therefore could not proceed. The appeal court essentially stated that the earlier decision of Ontario Superior Court Justice Belobaba was incorrect, and that although the Ford government’s actions to cut Toronto council could be construed as unfair, that does not mean they were unconstitutional. The Toronto municipal election can now go ahead with 25 council seats up for grabs, and the province does not have to use the Charter’s notwithstanding clause after all.
As the circus at Queen’s Park continues to unfold over the Ford government’s plan to proceed with almost halving the size of Toronto City Council, opposition parties continue to distinguish themselves by their childish antics, noisy protests and melodramatic speeches. One of the latest salvos from the opposition benches was questioning how much extra taxpayers were being charged for additional sittings of the legislature on the weekend and in the wee hours of Monday morning to attempt to have the Bill passed in time to permit a reasonable period before the Toronto municipal election. It is rich indeed for Ontario Liberals in particular to suddenly develop a concern with wasting taxpayer dollars after a long period in power when they squandered more money year after year than any other Ontario government in recent memory. In addition, the Liberals and NDP have both been actively throwing whatever delaying tactics they can muster to slow down the Bill’s passage, guaranteeing that more tax dollars are expended in the process.
You’ve got to hand it to the left – it doesn’t take too much to get them riled up out of all proportion to the issue at hand. In their latest attempts to rally opposition to the Ford government’s plan to reduce Toronto City Council to 25 members from 47 – and to employ the Notwithstanding Clause of the Charter to do so if necessary – Andrea Horwath’s NDP was so disruptive in the Ontario Legislature this week that they had to be ejected from the premises. There were also a handful of protesters in the gallery that were compelled to leave as they would not stop their noisy protests so that the legislature could conduct business. Although some members of the media tried to make it appear as it this was some kind of massive protest, actual photos of the legislature’s visitors’ gallery and the lawn of Queen’s Park showed that protesters were actually not that numerous.
Another day, another activist judicial decision that thwarts the will of a democratically elected government. In a ruling that came as a shock to many in both the political and legal communities, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba stated that the Ontario government could not legally reduce the size of Toronto City Council from 47 to 25 members. Among the main reasons cited for this decision was the contention that such a move would infringe on the freedom of expression rights of candidates for Council and voters, that timelines for such a change were too short given the impending municipal election and that voters’ Charter rights were infringed by increasing the size of municipal districts.
Considering that the recent round of trade negotiations between Canada and the US have been a series of missteps, miscalculations and mistakes on Canada’s part, the recent boast by Canadian labour unions that they have been more extensively involved in the negotiation process than ever before gave one more reason to lower our expectations for a favourable outcome for NAFTA.
The Trudeau government has been overly beholden to the unions since its election in 2015, in large part because of the extensive support and massive amounts of money spent by the unions to elect the Liberals and oust the Harper Conservatives. In fact, one of the first acts of the newly-elected Trudeau government was to eliminate Bill 377, which required a very basic level of transparency from unions as to how they spent their union dues which are forced by law on employees in unionized workplaces. The unions’ vociferous opposition to even a basic level of financial transparency, which is a requirement of unions in virtually all developed countries, was a big red flag that the unions were well aware that their spending habits on partisan political activities and various wacky social causes would not meet with the approval of many of their members.
Following up on an election promise, Premier Doug Ford recently announced some details on his plan to enhance freedom of speech on post-secondary campuses. It is a sad reality that this kind of policy would be needed at all in this day and age in a supposedly modern society, especially considering that for many decades universities and colleges were widely recognized as bastions of free speech, and fiercely proud of it. But unfortunately, creeping infiltration of much of our education system by unions and other left-leaning interests has meant that virtually anyone with an even slightly conservative perspective on issues is quickly dismissed as “alt-right”, Neanderthals or even Nazis, while extreme leftist views are not only tolerated but often encouraged.
The substance of Ontario’s campus free speech policy is eminently reasonable to anyone analyzing it objectively, as it is based upon the widely acknowledged, accepted and respected University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression. It is designed not only to protect free speech but ensure hate speech, discrimination and other illegal forms of speech are not allowed on campus. Ontario post-secondary educational institutions are to develop and implement a free speech policy starting January 1, 2019 and begin reporting on their progress as of September 2019. Institutions not in compliance could face a reduction in funding, and unresolved complaints are to be directed to the Ontario Ombudsman.
The Labour Day weekend is upon us once again, and the unions in Ontario appear to be devoting much of their energy to opposing various initiatives of the Ford government. Whereas unions used to be primarily concerned with the interests of their members, these days it seems they are more preoccupied with pursuing various social causes and partisan politics.
The composition of the union movement has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Today, only about 14 per cent of private sector workers in Canada are unionized, as compared to about 30 per cent back in the 1970s. This has taken place partly because of technological change which has seen people replaced by technology in many traditionally unionized sectors, and partly because of globalization which has moved many jobs to countries with lower labour costs as unions failed to adapt to changes in the global economy. As a result, the most powerful unions in modern times are government unions, and this is very bad news for the majority of us who are private sector taxpayers paying dearly for expensive government employees and the services they provide.
When I first made arrangements a couple of months ago to attend this past weekend’s Conservative Party of Canada convention in Halifax, who could ever have imagined the dramatic turn of events that would take place in the interim? Maxime Bernier’s defection from Conservative ranks and his announcement that he was planning to create his own political party just prior to the conference’s start meant that a very different mood prevailed at the meeting than was originally envisaged.
Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of anger among most attendees at Bernier and the cheap shots he took at his former colleagues and other Conservatives on his way out the door. The fact that Bernier had clearly not gotten over his loss of the party leadership a year ago was certainly well-known, as was his disagreement with party positions on several issues such as immigration and supply management in the dairy sector, but virtually no one expected his sour departure from the party in such an undignified way.
So billionaire Elon Musk is going to sue the government of Ontario for cancelling the electric vehicle rebate program last month. The program, introduced under the previous Liberal government, effectively required average taxpayers to subsidize the purchase of expensive electric vehicles to the tune of up to $14,000., including Teslas, as long as the vehicle was priced under $75,000. It would be difficult to find a policy that was more of a “reverse Robin Hood” than this, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. A transition plan was put in place for most electric vehicles, but seemingly not Teslas, which is the nub of the company’s complaint.
While most of Canada’s politicians were enjoying their gin and tonics on the dock or attending community BBQs, the new Ontario government got down to work early following their strong election victory in early June. Their summer legislative session has just ended for a brief break until they resume sitting on September 24, but Premier Doug Ford and his colleagues have put together quite an impressive list of accomplishments during their several week long inaugural legislative sitting.
Some of the key issues that were acted on include ending the protracted York University strike so that students can resume their education in the fall, and honouring the election commitment to get rid of the CEO and Board of Hydro One. A full line-by-line audit of the province’s books was also initiated so that the true state of Ontario’s finances can hopefully be revealed after a number of years of Liberal dishonesty and obfuscation which underestimated deficits and played fast and loose with the manner in which debt and pension obligations were reported. The findings of the audit are guaranteed to be ugly, but necessary if the provinces financial woes are ever to be properly dealt with.
This week the Ford government announced its long-awaited distribution model for cannabis sales, confirming rumours that the market would be opened up to private retailers. This is of course a major, and welcome, change in direction from the former Wynne government’s plan to have government retailers monopolize the sale of recreational cannabis and cannabis products.
Wynne’s decision to limit retailing to government outlets was in large part a capitulation to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) (the same union that oversees workers at the LCBO), and a loss for consumers and the private sector. As with all government monopolies, it was guaranteed to keep prices higher than they need be, limit product variety and restrict convenience for purchasers as there would only be a limited number of outlets and locations. It is refreshing to see a government decision that actually benefits the majority of Ontarians for a change, not simply more pandering to public section unions. Mind you, the Wynne government had already spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to brand the government retail entity – in keeping with its typical disrespect for taxpayers – money that is now a complete waste.
Premier Ford’s action to repeal the Liberal’s municipal election changes, including the election of some Regional Chairs by citizens, angered many on the left of the political spectrum, mostly because in some Regions (like Niagara) the left thought they had a good shot at getting in their preferred person elected as Chair.
St. Catharines NDP MPP Jennie Stevens presented a local petition, called “The Petition to Defend Democracy” to the Ontario legislative assembly asking the government to restore the election for Niagara Regional Chair.
Do you remember the last time a bottle of beer cost a buck in Ontario? It was 2008, at the end of which year the provincial Liberals hiked taxes on a case of 24 to bump the price up to over $25. Beer prices have only increased ever since. Now Premier Doug Ford has promised to bring back the old buck a beer price, and considering that this should be a relatively good news announcement, albeit not exactly high on the priority list for government right now, the amount of controversy it is generating is truly surprising.
The pendulum of politics is always swinging, and it appears at present that Canada is in for a fairly comprehensive swing to the conservative end of the political spectrum after a long run of left-leaning governments in many parts of the country. The trend began a couple of years ago in Manitoba, where a long-standing NDP government was replaced by the Progressive Conservative (PC) government of Brian Pallister, continued with the recent election of a strong majority PC government in Ontario, and looks very likely to continue in upcoming elections in Quebec this autumn and Alberta in the spring of 2019. BC’s current flirtation with a minority NDP government is not likely to be long-lived as they hold onto power only because of an uneasy truce with the Greens. The four Atlantic provinces will probably remain around the mushy middle politically as they usually do, but as these provinces are all heavily dependent upon transfer payments from the rest of the country for their continued existence, their policy impact on Canada as a whole is not substantial.
Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod’s recent announcement of a major review of how welfare is approached in the province is a development that should be welcomed by all Ontarians. Of course the usual suspects were highly critical of the announcement – mostly those who make their living from the “poverty” industry in one way or another. Yet even front-line social workers have said for years that the system is badly broken and is doing little to help those that need it most. The previous Liberal government had also admitted the system was a mess and needed substantial reform.
Premier Doug Ford delivered an unexpected blow to the comfy, entitled members of Toronto City Council when he announced late last week that the province was planning to cut the Council virtually in half, from its current bloated complement of 47 councilors to 25. There is no doubt that this surprising announcement could have been made somewhat less abruptly and with a more reasonable heads-up to the individuals affected, but it is also true that this move is probably the most exciting proposal we have seen in government in quite some time. Considering that any change in government tends to take a ridiculously long time to accomplish, perhaps the sudden nature of this announcement was necessary to ensure that change happens at all.
Undoubtedly the new Ontario government is swamped with priorities right now, but there is one very important area that needs immediate action yet has so far been left unaddressed – the economically destructive and intrusive labour Bill 148.
This past week saw a meeting of the “Council of the Federation”, which is a pompous name for the group of provincial Premiers across Canada who meet from time to time, usually to gang up against the federal government on a range of issues. And what an interesting meeting it was! It was the first such meeting for new Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his somewhat longer-serving Saskatchewan counterpart Scott Moe, and they wasted no time in declaring their joint opposition to the carbon tax Justin Trudeau is attempting to force on all provinces by the beginning of 2019.
The role of Leader of the Opposition is a very important one in the Canadian parliamentary system. This is especially true when a majority government is elected, as recently happened in Ontario. A majority government essentially has a dictatorship over the legislature for four years or so, and an effective Official Opposition is one of the main ways the governing party can be held to account.
For the first time in her political career, NDP leader Andrea Horwath is Ontario’s Leader of the Opposition and the spotlight is on her like never before. Some of her early actions in that role have cast considerable doubt as to whether she will actually be effective in that capacity or merely be an unconstructive government critic sniping away from the sidelines.
Last week’s inaugural Throne Speech of the new Ontario government demonstrated a sharp change in direction for the province from the last 15 years of Liberal rule. The theme of the speech was very much a continuation of the Progressive Conservative’s election campaign, as it reiterated the “government for the people” mantra and the intent of the government to reduce the burden it imposes on the lives of average Ontarians.
Virtually all of the Speech’s content was consistent with promises made during the election campaign, including such elements as the elimination of the cap-and-trade program and opposition to any form of carbon tax, a focus on tax relief, a reduction of the regulatory burden on business, a drop in gas and hydro prices and an overall plan to leave more money in the pockets of taxpayers instead of the coffers of government. The Speech reiterated the Ford government’s earlier statement to remain united with its federal counterparts on trade issues that could threaten the economy. Other topics noted in the Speech were various health care spending items and a “back to basics” approach to the public education system. One item that was somewhat of a surprise was the plan to permit the sale of beer and wine in convenience stores and other retail outlets, a change long overdue. As with all Throne Speeches, there was little specific detail into how the various commitments were to be implemented, although the announcement of a Commission of Inquiry into the financial practices of the Ontario government accompanied by a thorough audit did give some idea of how the new government will approach this important issue.
After many years of mismanagement by the Ontario Liberals, the hydro issue was a key hot button for voters in the recent Ontario election, and deservedly so. Since 2006, hydro costs in Ontario have more than doubled with dubious if any beneficial environmental impacts, and rural areas of the province were hit especially hard. Businesses also suffered serious harm from the sky-high hydro rates, further damaging their ability to compete. During the election, all of the political parties agreed that major changes had to be made to the hydro system, although there was little agreement as to what those changes would actually look like. This past week, Premier Ford’s new government began to address this important and complex issue.
When Doug Ford was sworn in as Ontario’s 26th Premier on June 29, he also announced the team that will be managing Ontario through the next four years. The size of his Cabinet sent an important message right off the top, as he has a significantly smaller Cabinet of 21 as compared with Wynne’s group of 30. The composition of the Ford Cabinet also sent a number of interesting signals as to how his government will conduct Ontario’s business in the early days of the new government.
For one, naming Christine Elliot as Deputy Premier (and Health Minister) was an inspired choice. Premier Ford has a reputation for being somewhat mercurial, mostly dating back to his days on Toronto City Council. Ms. Elliot has the opposite reputation – a low-key personality and decision maker with a wealth of experience in a number of areas, most notably the health care sector in which she will now be responsible for finding solutions to large and complex problems. As Ford came very close to losing the Progressive Conservative party leadership to Elliot, choosing her as his right-hand person also demonstrates a mature decision to let bygones be bygones regarding any remaining leadership contest tensions.
This past week we celebrated both Canada Day and US Independence Day, so it seems like a great opportunity to reflect upon the essential value of freedom in our society. We have been so blessed with a relatively free society in Canada since the nation’s birth that many Canadians have come to take this precious value for granted. We do so at our peril.
A long-awaited and very important United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision took place this week which could, and should, have repercussions for Canada. The issue under consideration was whether or not public sector unions had the right to force government employees who had opted out of joining the union to nevertheless pay the portion of union dues that was used for collective bargaining purposes – so-called “agency” or “fair share” fees. US Courts had long ago decided that non-union members could not be compelled to pay the portion of union dues directed to political and other non-collective bargaining uses, so it was only the agency fees that were in dispute in this proceeding. SCOTUS overturned a 40 year old precedent and upended laws in 22 states and, in a great boost for worker freedom, decided that unions could not force the agency dues on non-union employees. Needless to say, this was a huge blow to US public sector unions which will undoubtedly amount to many millions of dollars remaining in workers’ pockets, not in union coffers.
One of Premier-elect Doug Ford’s first directives in taking over the government of Ontario was to enact a hiring freeze, eliminate catered food and alcohol at government meetings, get rid of periodical and newspaper subscriptions, limit government travel and outside consultants and constrain other such discretionary spending by the public sector. Critics were quick to comment that such measures would not really save all that much money and were far from what was needed to find the savings in government operations that Ford said was achievable. Although these measures in and of themselves will not save the billions that need to be found to implement Ford’s agenda, the message sent by the new government and its potential impact on culture in the public sector should not be underestimated.
For many people, it is an unquestionable fact that a higher minimum wage is an effective tool to alleviate poverty. After all, it makes perfect sense that paying more to minimum wage earners is bound to improve their standard of living. Or does it? A review of the many studies that have been done on the issue show that the results of a minimum wage hike are considerable more complex than they initially appear, and by no means all positive.
Consider a study that came out just this week from The Fraser Institute which focused on Ontario. The study found that fully 91 per cent of minimum wage earners in the province did not live in low income households based on data from 2015, the most recent year available. In addition, almost 60 per cent of minimum wage earners were under 25 years old, of whom 86 per cent lived with family. As far as that single parent with young children the politicians always like to talk about, only 2.1 per cent of minimum wage earners fall into that category.
No one can deny that whichever political party had won the Ontario election, the victor would be facing a number of significant challenges. Thanks to 15 years of big spending Liberal government, the province is heavily in debt and spends over $1 billion every month on debt service charges alone. Interest rates are on their way up, which will make the debt burden even more costly in future. At the same time, the economy is slowing after about a decade of fairly modest growth, and a recession in the next couple of years is not out of the question. The ageing population and high levels of legal and illegal immigration mean that demands on social services will increase in the next few years. Ford also made a number of major expensive promises during the election, and needs to follow through on most of them if his government is not to lose legitimacy.
Here we go again. Every time a conservative government is elected there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth by the left about how the election isn’t really legitimate in some way, that the proportion of the popular vote was insufficient for victory, or some similar comments. The implication is that a conservative government was only elected because of flaws in our electoral system and not because they were really the preferred option of most voters. It’s déjà vu all over again in the aftermath of the 2018 Ontario election.
It has been less than a week since the Progressive Conservative’s decisive victory in the Ontario election, yet already there have been a few indications as to the philosophy and approach of the new government. As the tumultuous G7 meeting wound up over the past weekend, and Canada-US relations looked to be in the worst shape of the past few decades, a number of Conservative politicians across Canada publicly expressed support for the federal Liberal government in their defense of Canada’s interests in the ongoing trade negotiations. Premier-elect Doug Ford was one of those conservatives, as he sent out a positive message that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the Prime Minister in protecting Canada’s interests and vital Ontario jobs in the NAFTA talks.
After a lively, fractious and unpredictable election, the people of Ontario have spoken. And as all politicians love to say, the people are always right. So considering the outcome of the 2018 Ontario election, what exactly is it that we can expect for the next four years?
At the time of writing, the Progressive Conservatives looked secure in 74 ridings, with 40 for the NDP, 7 for the Liberals and a first-ever seat for the Green Party. This majority PC victory means a significant change in direction for the province with their overall objectives of reducing taxes on individuals and businesses, unwinding the destructive and costly impacts of the Green Energy Plan, working to reduce the cost of and increase the efficiency of government, eliminating “hallway healthcare”, reducing hydro costs and lowering gasoline taxes, among other things. These objectives are music to the ears of the vast majority of the business community and anyone who believes in a smaller and more efficient government than we have seen in the last 15 years in Ontario.
Following the ebb and flow of the Ontario election has once again reminded me of the extreme tactics typically used by the left to try to promote the election or policy outcome they favour. Of course all manner of promises and warnings are made by all parts of the political spectrum on a regular basis, and especially at election time. But the left does have a unique and odious tendency to get down and dirty with their commentary, resorting to personal attacks and threats as means of supposedly advancing their position.
Now that we are in the last week before the Ontario election the race appears to be neck-and-neck between the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP. As the pressure builds, the NDP has responded by making up more and more tall tales about what the PCs will supposedly do if they win the election. Some of the more recent ads include accusations that the PCs will close dozens of hospitals, fire thousands of nurses etc. Where these numbers come from is a mystery, but what can be certain is that they are absolutely false and completely invented by the NDP.
Every election has its share of political parties stretching the truth about their opponents, but in our current era of social media and internet bombardment of the voting public, it raises the question of whether we need a whole new way of overseeing elections to provide some means of limiting the ability of any political party or other entities involved in election advertising and partisan activities to promote bald-faced lies.
The Ontario election is now just over a week away, and the outcome looks as unpredictable as ever. With the apparent surge in support for Andrea Horwath and the NDP, the spotlight is finally being focused on the party, its leader, candidates and many of its highly questionable policies. The NDP has had the luxury of operating under the radar and getting an easy ride from the media and others for most of this election campaign as the party was not expected to be a serious contender for government. That has changed, and it is high time it attracted the scrutiny the other parties have been under for quite a while. Now that the rock is being lifted, all kinds of worrisome things are crawling out.
There was a time when labour unions actually did care about all workers and advocated policies that were geared to give average people bargaining power in the workplace. Those days are long gone. Although today’s unions still claim to be the voice of the average worker, they have instead become merely another self-interested lobby group that is all about lining their own pockets at the expense of others. There is of course nothing wrong with any group advocating for their own interests in a free society, but all such groups should be on a level playing field to do so. Yet unions in Canada have a highly privileged status not enjoyed by other interest groups or even by unions anywhere else in the developed world. Therein lies the problem.
As we get closer to the June 7 Ontario election date, it seems this contest has become a showdown between the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and the Ontario NDP. It appears that the collapse of the Ontario Liberals can hardly get any worse, as recent information suggests they may only hang on to a couple of seats in the newly expanded 124-seat legislature. If current trends hold, the Liberals could fall below eight seats and as such they would lose official party status and all of the resources that come with it. As a final indignity, it appears that leader Kathleen Wynne stands to lose her own seat.
That the Ontario Liberals were highly unpopular has been known for some time, so the only surprising thing about this is the extreme extent of the Liberal’s demise. What is surprising, however, is that the NDP is giving the Conservatives a run for their money. Part of the Liberal success for the last 15 years has been that they moved to the left of the NDP and grabbed a good chunk of traditional NDP voters, so it is only natural that as the Liberal brand weakened many of these votes would shift back to their traditional roots. But polls indicate that NDP support is well above historical levels at present and has not merely regained what it lost to the Liberals in recent years.
As usual in modern elections, we have seen many polls in the course of the Ontario election to date. Recent polls tracking support for the three main political parties suggest that the Progressive Conservatives continue to hold a significant lead, Liberal support continues to fall and there is growth in support for the NDP. Considering the NDP platform, which in a nutshell is “everything will be free for everyone all the time”, it is hard to believe that even a small number of Ontario voters are falling for this. A lot of Andrea Horwath’s advertising starts out with the word “Imagine”, as in “imagine when child care is free, dental care is free, Hydro is publicly owned and lower cost” and so on. The use of the word “imagine” is really quite appropriate, since any sensible person knows that the kind of world envisioned by the NDP’s platform is truly imaginary.
It has been clear for quite some time that Ontarians were fed up with the Liberal regime’s policies of big taxes, big government and steadily worsening public services despite all the money spent. Given this dissatisfaction, it is hard to fathom that a significant number of Ontarians would shift their support to another big tax, big spend option such as the NDP. Indeed, based on the NDP platform they would actually be even bigger spenders than the Liberals have been. There has been a massive amount of fearmongering about the prospect of a Progressive Conservative victory in this election, virtually all of it dishonest and based on information that is simply not true. There is no doubt that left-leaning interest groups, the “green” lobby and many others have made out like bandits under this Liberal government, at the expense of taxpayers in general. These same groups would undoubtedly continue to do well with an NDP regime, living large on the taxpayers’ dime. This explains the desperate and increasingly shrill rhetoric from these groups about the apocalypse that will be Ontario if neither the Liberals nor NDP were to prevail in the election. It likely will be apocalyptic for them as they are cut off the government gravy train, and that is good news for the vast majority of people in the province.
It isn’t surprising that Ontario’s health care system and its many failings has become a key issue in the current provincial election campaign. Horror stories abound – long waiting lists for many medical procedures, so-called “hallway health care” as people are left in hospital corridors for days on gurneys as no beds are available, emergency room nightmares because of a lack of capacity, the refusal of government to fund key medications, and so on. Many people within the health care sector itself claim that the silver bullet is to throw even more tax dollars at the problem. The three main political party leaders are obliging by promising, to various degrees, to up the ante on health system spending.
Now that the Ontario election is officially underway, the activities of a number of groups commonly referred to as “third parties” has also been ramping up. Third parties are referred to as such because they are neither political parties nor corporations or unions. A fairly recent phenomenon in Canada, and especially in Ontario, has been the creation of third party organizations for the specific purpose of intervening in elections in a partisan manner.
The most well-established organization along these lines in Ontario is the Working Families Coalition, which first emerged in 2002 to actively support the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty in the 2003 provincial election. Working Families financed a variety of television and other ad campaigns aimed at demonizing the Conservatives, and the Liberals went on to win that election. At that time, a majority of Ontarians seeing these ads probably did think it was a legitimate group with the interests of average working people at heart. Of course, a little more digging showed that Working Families was really a union front that was much more interested in maintaining union privileges than caring about the average person. The fact that many of the unions supporting these groups are public sector unions, whose main goal is to separate the majority of Ontarians from their hard-earned money, makes the claim that these groups represent average Ontarians particularly laughable.
For a few years now, the left has championed a supposedly new type of business dubbed a “social enterprise”. The social enterprise claims to demonstrate a different sort of business model which cares at least as much, if not more, about social goals as it does about traditional business goals such as making a profit and staying in business. Some governments, including the Liberals here in Ontario, have sung the praises of this new type of business as the wave of the future and a better way of operating than the fusty old business models of days gone by. There are organizations that have been set up to promote this type of business, such as the Better Way Alliance and the Ontario Living Wage Network. Common characteristics of these businesses are that they claim to pay their employees a “living wage” (usually a dollar or two over the minimum wage), prioritize environmental and other social issues, and seek to make a positive contribution to the communities in which they operate. These are all of course laudable goals, and at first blush this sounds like an innovative new trend.
For the past few years, the Ontario Liberals have frequently boasted about the fact that the Ontario economy was growing and that employment was expanding. And they of course have taken credit for any positive economic news. However, a little perspective is in order.
For starters, economic cycles of growth and recession are rarely if ever created by any one government. In our globally interdependent world, most countries’ economies ebb and flow along with international developments that they have limited control over. This is especially true for Canada, which is a relative small player on the international stage. This is not to say that government policies do not matter, as despite global economic cycles, good government policy can give a boost to a growth trend and help to mitigate a downturn, and bad policy can constrain good economic times and make a downturn even worse. For a recent example, we need only look at Venezuela. That country, which was blessed with abundant natural resource wealth, was ruined as a result of a socialist government that took over successful private sector businesses, ran them into the ground, and impoverished the entire country. So although it is true that many of the factors that impact a modern economy are not under any one government’s control, government policy does indeed matter.
At least no one can accuse Andrea Horwath of not being left wing enough anymore. For some time now, the Ontario Liberals have attracted New Democratic Party (NDP) voters by moving even further to the left than the traditionally leftist NDP was itself. No more! The recently-announced Ontario NDP election platform has moved so very far to the left of the political spectrum that there is now no room for anyone else on that precarious perch.
The NDP platform, announced on April 16, promises lots and lots of new spending. Among the major and most costly promises are “free” dental care, universal pharmacare, increased social housing expenditures, reduced hydro rates and the “deprivatization” of Hydro One, the conversion of post-secondary student loans into grants, “free” child care for folks earning less than $40,000 annually and $12/day child care for the rest of us. There are many less expensive promises as well, including such high priority items as eliminating the “pink” tax which ostensibly leads to women being charged more than men for dry cleaning and the like. These promises involve added expenditures in the multiple billions of dollars as well as some doubts regarding feasibility. For instance, many experts have debated whether the “deprivatization” of Hydro One is even possible at this point, and at a minimum conclude that it surely will be very, very costly.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Ontario’s intrepid Auditor-General, Bonnie Lysyk, once again informs us of the extent to which the Kathleen Wynne government is misleading Ontarians about the state of the province’s finances. Earlier this week, Ms. Lysyk reported that the government’s most recent financials as presented in the budget were “not reasonable” – auditor lingo for wrong – as they low-balled Ontario’s deficit and expense estimates by billions of dollars. In fact, she deemed the government to have “dramatically” understated their reported projected deficits. Instead of the government’s claim of deficits around $6.7 billion annually over the next three years, Lysyk expects them to be almost double that, at just under $12 billion in 2018-19 increasing to $12.5 billion in 2020-21. Needless to say, Lysyk’s credibility on this far outstrips that of the Liberal government, which has done nothing but misrepresent the finances of the province for many years.
Kathleen Wynne, never at a loss for a glib response when she is presented with shocking facts that contradict her version of events, stated that the A-G’s report was merely a difference of opinion among accountants. If that were true, I guess the Titantic was a minor boating incident.
Lysyk’s most recent criticism hinges on two major factors. One, which I outlined in a previous column, pertains to the reality that the Liberals moved several billions of dollars of borrowing “off-book”, or off of the government’s balance sheet, and recorded it as borrowing by Ontario Power Generation to finance the so-called Fair Hydro Plan. This happened purely for political reasons as it became clear to Wynne that her abject mismanagement of Ontario’s hydro system and the resulting sharp increase in hydro costs to Ontarians had become a serious political liability. Moving these billions off the government’s balance sheet permitted their dishonest claim that the books were actually balanced in the 2017-18 fiscal year, when they were not.
The second bit of financial sleight-of-hand involved a couple of public sector employee pension funds, The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union pension plan. Lysyk states that the government improperly included some funds that belonged to these pension plans as government assets, when pension plans are of course intended to fund pensions and not be dipped into by governments for other purposes.
What is also clear about all of this complex financial finagling on the government’s part are their extensive efforts to hide what they were up to from the Auditor-General, and therefore from Ontario taxpayers. Ontarians are fortunate to have such a dogged and talented advocate in Bonnie Lysyk, who has never shrunk from taking on this government despite the abuse regularly heaped on her by Premier Wynne and many Liberal Ministers.
Weeks away from the Ontario election, polls show that the Liberals remain in the basement of public opinion with support hovering just below 20 per cent. With all of the disgraceful dishonesty, abuse of taxpayer dollars, costly pandering to government unions, multiple cover-ups and other appalling behavior from the Wynne Liberals, it is remarkable that they have any support at all.
Much has been said about the unmitigated disaster that is the Ontario Green Energy Plan, and its destructive impact on hydro rates and Ontarians’ pocketbooks, let alone negative environmental impacts like threatening certain at-risk animal species and sullying the countryside with unsightly wind farms. This policy has cost us all a fortune – with the exception of the many government-friendly businesses and individuals who received massive subsidies to produce so-called “green” energy. And despite all the expense, wind and solar power contribute very little to our electricity system; we are still largely dependent on the more reliable fossil-fuel based sources to generate hydro power. Any beneficial impact on the environment has been elusive at best.
Friday 13 took place last week, and it brought some bad luck for Ontario taxpayers. Two of the major teachers’ unions chose last Friday to file unfair labour practices complaints with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB). The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) claimed that the Ontario government discriminated against OSSTF and ETFO members by making payouts to other unions that did not challenge the Liberal governments’ actions during the 2012 round of education sector bargaining. Whatever the outcome of this most recent grievance of the ever-litigious public sector unions, one result can be guaranteed – taxpayer pockets will be lighter at the end of it.
It is more than ironic that any teachers’ union would bring a proceeding against the current Liberal government. Since they were elected in 2003, first McGuinty and then Wynne bent over backwards to appease teachers unions’ demands at the expense of other Ontarians to buy their votes and financial support during elections. Teachers’ compensation has increased very handsomely under the Liberals. For example, from 2004-2014, education spending grew by 40 per cent, and almost 90 per cent of that growth went into employee compensation. This growth handily outstripped inflation and the wage growth of the private sector taxpayers footing the bill. And during this period of increased spending on teacher compensation, school enrollment actually declined. Every year when the Sunshine list is published, listing provincial government employees earning more than $100,000, the number of teachers on the list increases substantially. Soon virtually all Ontario teachers with a few years of tenure will be on this list. And don’t forget, that $100,000 plus salary is for working 9 months of the year, and does not include monies going to generous pensions and other benefits.
As well, teachers’ unions are always promoting concepts such as smaller class sizes that necessitate more teachers and therefore more dues paying members for unions, despite the fact there is no research proving smaller class sizes lead to better educational outcomes. Nevertheless, the Liberals went along with shrinking class sizes and the significant associated costs. When full-day kindergarten was being discussed, unions insisted that a fully qualified and expensive teacher had to be present in the kindergarten classroom to essentially be glorified babysitters, despite the fact that Early Childhood Education workers were more than adequate and less costly to the system. The Liberals capitulated to the unions on this one as well.
Being so close to an election, the timing of this labour complaint is interesting. Does taking on the Liberal government at this time mean these two large unions will be supporting the NDP on June 7? Only time will tell.
Overall, teachers and their unions have done exceedingly well by this Liberal government. But there is never an “off” switch for unions, hence this recent legal action. Whereas unions in the private sector have some checks and balances as their employers operate in a competitive marketplace, public sector unions face no competition and can continue their extortion of taxpayers unhindered if the government in power is complicit. Over the past few decades, other countries have, to varying degrees, reduced the entitlement and influence of public sector unions to the benefit of taxpayers and the economy overall. It’s high time Ontario and Canada followed their example.
It seems the Ontario election silly season has finally officially opened, with the launch of the first Liberal attack ad against Doug Ford. Entitled “The Real Doug Ford”. The ad goes on to vilify Doug Ford as someone who will give tax breaks to big corporations, snatch the high minimum wage out of hard-working Ontarians hands, eliminate 40,000 jobs (apparently including teachers and nurses, according to the Liberals), take away women’s rights and not hold corporations responsible for climate change, among other things. In other words, classic left wing boilerplate we have seen Liberals in many Canadian jurisdictions use election after election, time and time again.
Sometimes you really have to wonder if many of our political leaders have a clue how the economy actually works. Take Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne as examples. Over the last couple of years, the federal and Ontario governments have introduced a number of anti-business policies. These policies have taken particular aim at small- and medium-sized businesses, a group that represents about half of the Canadian economy and the majority of net new job creation. In other words, a sector of the economy that any sensible government would want to promote and encourage.
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau introduced a number of punitive tax measures aimed at smaller firms in July 2017, when he likely hoped everyone would be on summer holiday and not paying attention. Prior Liberal governments under Finance Ministers Edgar Benson in 1970 and Alan MacEachen in 1980 tried to introduce similar policies targeting small businesses, and in both cases were forced to back down in the face of massive and justified opposition. Morneau’s proposals received exactly the same kind of negative reception and he was also forced to substantially water down his original plans, although a number of problems remain with the revised policies. It seems that Liberals don’t learn from history as every few decades they repeat this foolish mistake.
A few weeks ago, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made an astonishing statement. When speaking to a roomful of Humber college students, she urged them to make sure they voted in the upcoming June 7 provincial election. If she had just left it there, it would have been a commendable reminder of the importance of participating in our democratic system to a group that might never have voted before and needed some extra encouragement to do so. But Wynne didn’t leave it there, but rather added the absurd and objectionable comment “If you don’t vote, then somebody who looks like me is going to vote, some senior person, older than me, some white person”. Wow – the notion of old, white people actually voting? The horror!
Wynne has made a career of calling out others as racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist etc. when anyone opposes her views or policies, no matter how legitimate the criticism. It is particularly hypocritical for her to have made such an ageist, racist statement as she did to the college students. This certainly did not demonstrate the “inclusiveness” that Wynne and her Liberal friends profess to practice. Instead it merely exposed the superficial nature of the Liberal brand and the divisive nature of identity politics that seeks to pit one group against another, no matter how corrosive that divisiveness is to society as a whole.
It seems that all the superlatives have already been used up to describe the Ontario Liberals’ irresponsible big-spending pre-election budget, not to mention the profanities. The budget was just formally announced this past Wednesday, but had been foreshadowed in the weeks prior as big-spending announcement after big-spending announcement was made by Premier Wynne and her cronies. Clearly there are no limits to the amount of our money this government will spend in their increasingly desperate quest to be re-elected after 15 years of wasteful, destructive and inefficient government.
Last week saw the annual release of Ontario’s Sunshine List, comprised of those government employees who earned in excess of $100,000 in 2017. There was very significant growth in the number of people on this list, from 123,410 in 2016 to 131,741 last year, a 7 per cent increase. This growth took place despite the fact that HydroOne, a notorious hotbed of high earners, is no longer on the list at all as it was privatized in 2015 by the Wynne government. The handful of people at the very top of the list can more or less be justified, as they tend to be the heads of hospitals, various utilities, universities and other very senior government posts that would be expected to earn a high salary. Although most media attention tends to focus on the dozen or so people at the top of the list, what is actually more problematic – and most costly to taxpayers – is the massive number of government employees in fairly routine, middling government jobs paid high salaries that far outstrip what they would be earning in the private sector.
The Sunshine List originated in 1996 with the Mike Harris government, and some critics believe that the $100,000 amount should be adjusted for inflation since that time. This would change the threshold for salary publication to about $144,000. However, when you consider that the average wage level of Ontarians is about $70,000, it is difficult to find the notion of publicizing the list of those in government who make significantly more than the average person at all inappropriate.
Late last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne surprised everyone by abruptly shutting down the provincial parliament – officially known as proroguing – and announced her intention to launch a new session of the legislature with a Speech from the Throne. That Throne Speech took place earlier this week and was clearly a pre-election gambit. It promised even more spending on such things as reducing hospital wait times, increased coverage of prescription and dental expenses, expanded mental health care, more affordable day care, further “free” tuition and more assistance with student debt, among other things. As this is a government that has been in power for 15 years, Ontarians can be forgiven for asking why all this added spending is needed now, and if so what exactly have these Liberals been doing for all those years?
If you live in Ontario and pay attention to social media, you have likely noticed a sharp increase in warnings about the many perils involved in electing a Conservative government in the upcoming provincial election. These messages started appearing very shortly after the recent election of Doug Ford as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, and are escalating in quantity and in the desperate tone they convey. Most Ontarians are probably not aware that this is not merely a bunch of random people who are not fans of Conservatives, but a very orchestrated campaign by a number of affiliated groups whose goal is to elect Liberal governments in perpetuity and in doing so keep themselves on a taxpayer-funded gravy train.
The key groups involved include Leadnow, Dogwood and a number of different labour unions, and this is not the first election they have been involved with. However, their activities have become more coordinated and more heavily funded in the decade or so since they have been working hard to prevent the election of a Conservative government at all costs.
Another International Women’s Day has come and gone, and I am yet again reminded that, as a woman who is a small-c conservative, I am simply not allowed to be a feminist in this day and age. This was not always the case. I am old enough to have experienced the women’s movement more or less as it was beginning back in the 1960s and 1970s. At that exciting time, being a feminist simply meant believing that women should be free to have the same rights and opportunities as men, and not be discriminated against because they were female. And a key part of the movement was the vital importance of individual freedom.
When I first reviewed the detailed legislation that comprises the Ontario Liberal government’s Bill 148, which came into force in January 2018, my immediate reaction was that it read exactly like a union collective bargaining agreement. Normally, employees and employers would be able to negotiate the terms of any collective bargaining agreement; then employees would vote on the result of the negotiations. But no one other than politicians got to vote on Bill 148. Instead, the Kathleen Wynne government quickly forced it through the provincial legislature, despite the feedback from many groups representing the interests of both businesses and employees that this Bill would have a major negative impact on workers and the Ontario economy. The province’s current Liberal government has a long track record of capitulating to labour unions at the expense of the vast majority of Ontario taxpayers, and the passage into law of Bill 148 was just the most recent example of this unbalanced approach to government policy.