The BC NDP won a strong majority government last week in Canada’s second provincial election taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier John Horgan took a chance in calling a snap election only three years after the last election – in violation of the fixed election date provision in BC’s Constitution Act – with the hope of turning his minority government into a majority. That risk clearly paid off as his previous minority seat count of 41 was converted into a solid 55-seat majority.
Ontarians recently found out that they will be facing yet another increase in their already-inflated hydro rates, starting in November 2020.
This change will put an end to the fixed rate pricing that has been in place since June 1, when the provincial government suspended time-of-use pricing because of the pandemic. The increase is expected to amount to about two per cent on average – not a massive hike but still another cost increase when so many people are financially stressed because of pandemic-related economic factors. High hydro rates were causing problems for low- and middle-income Ontarians before the pandemic hit, and this recent price increase will worsen energy poverty in the province.
In the private sector, where most people work, if an employer said their goal was to hire the best person for the job they would probably be mocked for belabouring the obvious.
Not so in the public sector, however, where union rules mean that employees with seniority are routinely given preference, whether or not they are the person best qualified for the job at hand. This is especially true in Ontario’s public school system, where self-serving union rules often prevail over common sense and good employment policies. A recent announcement by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce aims to change this long-standing practice as it pertains to supply teachers, and it can’t come soon enough.
The last week has seen some interesting developments in Canada’s labour market, although much uncertainty remains because of the unpredictability of the ongoing pandemic.
Statistics Canada Labour Market Survey Data for September showed that overall employment increased by 378,000 jobs nationally, bringing the unemployment rate down to nine per cent from its peak of 13.7 per cent in May 2020. The vast majority of new employment was full-time, as many jobs which had moved to part-time during the pandemic had once again assumed full-time status. There was also a slight decline in the number of people working from home in the month.
A big announcement took place with much fanfare this week, as the federal and Ontario governments committed a total of $590 million, divided equally between them, to the development of electric cars and batteries at the Ford plant in Oakville.
Ontario teachers marched on the Ontario Legislature during a one-day province-wide strike last February.
Last week the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) rejected an appeal from the province’s teachers’ unions that claimed health and safety measures taken by the Ontario government were insufficient and that teachers were being put at risk.
All four major teachers’ unions were involved in putting the case to the OLRB – elementary school (EFTO), secondary school (OSSTF), Catholic school (OETCA) and francophone school (AEFO).
The union complaints dealt with a number of issues, including class sizes, student and teacher cohort sizes, ventilation, masking and busing. In addition to asking for smaller class sizes, more physical distancing and some other more stringent measures, the unions also asked that measures taken in the schools be reviewed monthly by the Ministry of Labour.
In its rejection of the unions’ appeal, the OLRB noted that it was being done on jurisdictional grounds, and said that the unions needed to make their cases individually, not jointly. The Board noted that any complaints should pertain to situations faced by individual teachers and any specific health and safety concerns they may have.
It remains to be seen whether any individual teachers or their unions will file complaints of this nature in the weeks and months ahead, and whether or not they will be successful with the OLRB.
For its part, the Ontario government continues to contend that the health and safety measures it has put in place in schools are sufficient. Experience with public school reopenings to date would appear to back up the government’s position as there have been few significant outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools and those that did occur have been dealt with quickly and effectively.
Looking across all of the provinces, a number of teachers’ unions in various provinces have complained about safety issues regarding the reopening of schools, but the Ontario teachers’ unions have as usual been the most vocal and militant. When comparing the school reopening plans of the provinces, Ontario’s precautions are among the most stringent in the country, so the unions’ accusations that the Ontario government is being irresponsible don’t hold water. In fact, some parents in other jurisdictions have commented that they view Ontario’s plan as one to be emulated, not constantly criticized.
No one should be surprised to hear the teachers’ unions respond to the OLRB’s action by saying they will continue their actions against the government, and a press conference is apparently planned for this week to outline the unions’ next steps.
History has shown that the Ontario teachers’ unions like to fight with governments of all political stripes, even those who bend over backwards to appease them as the McGuinty/Wynne Liberals did at immense cost to taxpayers accompanied by deteriorating education quality despite all the additional money spent.
Even though the unions fought with the Liberals, they will always save their most potent vitriol for a Conservative government. In light of the immense amount of money the unions have to play with, receiving forced dues from every teacher in the province funded by tax dollars, one can only imagine what a positive impact they could have for teachers, students and public education in general if they chose to be constructive instead of constantly confrontational.
It doesn’t look like that will be happening anytime soon.
Amid all of the concerns about the increasing numbers of people contracting COVID-19 in recent weeks, there was some good news regarding what is taking place in the public school system.
After about a month of most schools having re-opened across the country, there appears to be very little worry among health officials that schools will become a hotbed for infections. Some cases of the virus have been experienced but, in the vast majority of cases, it has been only one or two cases in some schools which were rapidly and effectively dealt with, and the schools involved did not need to be closed.
The Ontario Divisional Court this week made a decision that will likely end up costing Ontario taxpayers more money for health care, at a time when the provincial health care budget is already under considerable stress.
The decision concerned a Ford government policy change announced last May which intended to cancel out-of-country traveller’s health insurance. The amount of money involved in this case is not massive – about $10-12 million in the multi-billion health care budget – but the principle is important. Should courts be able to make decisions that affect government finances – often significantly – without having to at least consider the question of whether taxpayers have the ability to pay?
After pressuring all provinces into imposing various forms of carbon taxes on their citizens, as well as policies to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industry, this week the federal government accepted Ontario’s plan to impose carbon pricing on industry.
Last week the Ford government reconvened the Ontario legislature and announced its fall legislative agenda, a plan for “growth, renewal and long-term recovery”.
The top priority cited was health preparedness, but there was also a focus on job creation, skills training, attracting investment, strengthening communities and fortifying the front lines of the health care system – all commendable and necessary objectives. In the intervening week, however, the rather sudden increase in recorded cases of COVID-19 has effectively wiped most other priorities off the table for the time being.
This week saw a big win for the Conservatives in New Brunswick.
Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs had been overseeing a minority government for the past two years, and opted to call a snap election to seek a majority mandate from voters. The four political parties in the province had been in the midst of negotiations about a proposal from Higgs that his minority government be permitted to stay in power until October 2022, or until the end of the pandemic, to provide continuity during the COVID-19 crisis. The provincial Liberals pulled out of these discussions in mid-August, providing the impetus for Higgs to trigger the snap election.
Last week in British Columbia, a BC Supreme Court judge rejected a request to reverse some provincial health care regulations – notably a ban on private health insurance for medically necessary procedures.
The case was put forward by Dr. Brian Day, a physician who has long been an advocate for choice in health care options. Although there are many complex legal arguments involved, the BC judge effectively concluded that although the current public health care monopoly imposes significant wait times on Canadian patients and consequently considerable suffering and even unnecessary death, this cost is not sufficient to permit private health insurance as in the judge’s opinion private insurance would undermine the feasibility of the public system.
This week the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec convened their first-ever “summit” to discuss important matters of mutual interest.
Topics on the agenda included economic recovery and job creation in a post-pandemic environment, health care preparedness for a possible second COVID-19 wave, collaboration on trade issues and the safe opening of the Canada-US border and the promotion of domestically made products, as well as other issues of concern to both provinces.
As the opening of school gets closer in Ontario and has begun in some other provinces, and teacher union scare tactics escalate to reach even higher levels of desperation, some interesting trends are emerging.
It seems that a significant number of parents are opting out of sending their kids back to public school and are finding alternatives in private schools, tutors, home school variations, distance learning and “learning pods” of a few students, or some combination of these options. Surveys show that in Ontario and some other provinces, as many as one-quarter to one-third of parents will not send their kids to public school this September.
Anyone who has worked in the private sector for any period of time is likely familiar with the reality that things are not always rosy and difficult circumstances for any business usually creates a need for pay freezes, pay cuts, working longer hours for the same pay or, in the worst case scenario, job loss.
In the public sector, it used to be the case decades ago that workers earned lower pay than the private sector, which was offset by greater job security and better pensions.
Now that the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, data are starting to come out measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian economy. It seems that the news is even worse than originally thought.
Statistics Canada data for the second quarter of 2020 registered the steepest decline in quarterly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ever recorded since data were collected on this basis in the early 1960s, with an annualized drop of 38.7 per cent. Not surprisingly, consumer spending, investment and international trade all showed sharp declines. By way of comparison, the US economy shrunk by 31.7 per cent, significantly less than in Canada.
Earlier this week the Financial Accountability Office (FAO) for Ontario confirmed that the province’s credit rating by the four major credit rating agencies would remain at its current level of AA- or A+, and has not to date been downgraded because of the sharply increased government spending during the pandemic.
The FAO cautioned, however, that to avoid a downgrade in the near future the province would have to pursue a post-pandemic fiscal path of reducing annual deficits and overall provincial debt.
Canadian companies move to America and pay one-third the hydro costs. At the end of Part I of this two-part series, we left manufacturer Acme Inc. forced to make some difficult decisions as Ontario Liberal government policies on hydro rates, labour legislation, employment standards and taxes were making it increasingly difficult to do business in […]
Many debates about government economic policy – both good and bad – tend to take place in a theoretical and ideological context without consideration for the effects of those policies once they are implemented.
What really brings the impact home is the real-life experience of an individual business. This is the story of a business in Ontario which struggled for years to keep its head above water in the face of adversity. Some of the difficulties arose from the natural ebb and flow of the business cycle, which is challenging but fully expected by any sensible business owner. What was surprising is that most of the problems this business faced were created by the bad policies of the McGuinty and Wynne Liberal governments.
Ontario’s Environment Minister Jeff Yurek says the data gathered under the province’s first-ever climate change impact assessment will help the province and local communities plan their infrastructure to mitigate climate change risks.
Last Friday a rather unusual press release was issued from the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, announcing that the province was launching the province’s first-ever climate change impact assessment, supposedly to “strengthen the province’s resilience to the impacts of climate change”.
This week Finance Minister Rod Phillips broke the bad fiscal news in an update on Ontario’s finances and it was grim indeed.
Citing all of the increased spending due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Minister stated that this year’s deficit would hit $38.5 billion, roughly a quadrupling of last year’s deficit of $9.2 billion. Expenditure increases were, not surprisingly, significant in health care where current year spending jumped to $7.7 billion from earlier forecasts of $3.3 billion. Billions more were directed to support for municipalities, transit projects and education.
It’s not the students that have the back to school blues this year, but the unions and some teachers are working hard to whip up fear among parents and others that Ontario’s plan is going to expose students and their families to unacceptably unsafe conditions when they return to the classroom in September.
The Ford government has now been in power for just over two years – the half way point in a four-year mandate.
Virtually every government of any political stripe tries to get the difficult stuff over with in the first half of its term, then spend the final two years with voter-friendly measures geared to getting them re-elected. The Ford government came into power with big plans in a number of areas to fix the many problems left by their Liberal predecessors, and put in place new elements of their own agenda. So how well have they done in accomplishing these goals in their first two years in power?
As the messy and complicated WE Charity scandal continues to unfold, a number of provincial governments have weighed in to question the involvement of WE with their province’s education systems.
In the last issue of the Niagara Independent, an article described a recent meeting of the Niagara Regional Council, during which significant amounts of time were spent on things such as complaints, councillors insulting or apologizing to each other, tedious procedural issues and other matters raised by leftist special interest groups.
Last week the Ontario legislature adjourned after a session that was unprecedented in many ways.
It began on February 17. At that time, the priority items on the agenda were teachers’ strikes, various blockades of key rail transportation corridors and the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ford government announced plans to proceed with some previously-introduced legislation on issues such as health teams, justice, transportation and the budget that was upcoming at that time. As we now know, the rapid worsening of the pandemic quickly took precedence over other issues and became by far the top priority for government action.
In recent weeks most provinces across Canada have been focused on how they are opening up their economies again after months of COVID-19 lockdown. Most of the attention has been paid to exactly which businesses are permitted to reopen and under what conditions, what sizes of groups are allowed to congregate, whether or not masks will be mandatory in certain circumstances and how those rules are to be enforced by governments.
Most Ontarians are well aware that they are paying far too much for hydro – significantly more than pretty much any other jurisdiction in North America.
Most Ontarians also know that the reason for our outrageously high hydro costs is the ill-conceived Green Energy Act (GEA) of the previous Liberal government, which involved signing long-term contracts with solar and wind energy providers, guaranteeing them rates far in excess of any sensible market rates for electricity, while doing little if anything for the environment that would justify the massive added costs.
“Time is up” was a recent ultimatum declared by Ontario’s Mayors to other levels of government. The reason for this sabre rattling was that municipal governments are demanding more money from provincial and federal governments or they threaten to dramatically increase taxes or reduce services.
As the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership races enters its final weeks, more attention is being paid to the platforms of the four candidates. One important segment of the Canadian economy that has been consistently neglected and mistreated by the Trudeau Liberal government is small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). Considering that the SME sector represents about half of Canada’s economy and employment, it is pretty foolish for any government to not work to bolster the strength of this sector. But the current Liberal government clearly has no respect for SMEs, as indicated early on by Trudeau’s own erroneous characterization of small business owners as “tax cheats”, and their subsequent punitive changes to small business tax policies that were completely unnecessary.
Following the Alberta NDP’s implementation of a number of very union-friendly policies during their tenure in government from 2015 to 2019, Premier Jason Kenney just introduced legislation to reverse many of those changes and restore some balance to labour relations in the province.
In somewhat of a surprise announcement, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated this week that the Ontario public education system would be abandoning the practice of “streaming”, which entails separating students as they enter Grade 9 into two “streams” – an applied course of study or an academic course of study.
Ontario’s recent success in “flattening the curve” of new COVID-19 cases and to date preventing a second wave of infections means that the province can hopefully move to Stage 3 of its plans to further re-open the economy.
One of the key government policies conventionally deployed following a crisis is to undertake large scale infrastructure projects to create employment by building or repairing the roads, bridges, sewers systems, transit and other public works that underpin any successful economy. In our modern era we can add high-speed internet to the fundamental infrastructure list as all parts of Canada do not yet have this capability that is routinely enjoyed in urban centres yet still not in many rural areas. The current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception as governments are now looking to these types of projects as one means of helping Canadian workers and the economy recover from our current depressed circumstances.
You have to wonder if Stephen Lecce looks back and wonders if he did the right thing in accepting the appointment to Ontario Education Minister just over a year ago. As a rookie Member of Provincial Parliament for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party and a first-time Cabinet Minister, it wasn’t exactly a light job to take on, although it certainly is one of the most important portfolios and the second-highest spending area after health care. It has also been the undoing of many Ministers of all political stripes over the years, so the stakes were high.
The Ontario government recently announced its plans to bring students back to school in September after the pandemic-driven school closure that has taken place over the past few months. Premier Ford emphasized that student safety was the number one consideration, and that ongoing close consultations with health experts would continue to ensure students were not at risk.
Canada broke the 100,000 mark in terms of COVID-19 cases this week, even as new cases of the virus have continued to trend downward in virtually all parts of the country. There have been many comparisons made among the various Canadian provinces as to how the different jurisdictions have fared in handling the Covid-19 pandemic to date, and Ontario and Quebec are regularly cited as the two provinces that have had the worst time dealing with the virus. But has Ontario really done so badly, considering that it is by far the most populous province and as such would be expected to have a very high number of cases?
For some time now, labour unions have been a source of increasing problems in Ontario and in fact across Canada, and this has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent protests over racial issues. Police unions are an excellent example. In all too many of the high profile cases of police brutality over the years, including the current cases in the US that have sparked protests and riots in that country and Canada, the offending police officers were shown to be long time bad cops that had been protected time and again by their union until finally tragedy struck.
The 25th anniversary of the election of Mike Harris in Ontario and his Common Sense Revolution just took place on June 8 with little fanfare. At that time in 1995, Harris’s majority victory came as a surprise to many political observers who believed there would be a return to Liberal rule in the province after Ontario’s brief and unfortunate experiment with the first – and only to date – NDP government that had ever been elected with a majority in the province. But something about Harris and his common sense platform appealed to voters after the big-spending days of the David Peterson Liberal government in the late 1980s and the even bigger-spending days of the Bob Rae NDP government in the early to mid-1990s.
Last week’s appointment of Jane Philpott, former federal Liberal Member of Parliament and Health Minister in the Trudeau government, as a Special Advisor to the Ontario Health Minister was seen by many as a smart move by the Ford government on a number of fronts. As a medical doctor with extensive relevant experience, Philpott is well suited to perform in an advisory capacity during the current COVID-19 crisis. She also stepped in as a volunteer at Participation House, a care home for people with disabilities, earlier during the crisis as that facility was left seriously short-staffed when many of the unionized employees walked out and left the vulnerable residents at considerable risk. From a completely objective standpoint, Dr. Philpott would seem to be a perfect fit for this position.
Premier Doug Ford’s decision this week to extend the emergency orders until the end of June attracted a great deal of criticism from many quarters. This decision meant that gatherings of more than five people would continue to be prohibited and many businesses such as restaurants and bars had to remain closed except for limited operations like take-out service for restaurants. Most criticisms were based on the fact that since the vast majority of deaths from COVID-19 had taken place in facilities such as long term care homes among highly vulnerable populations, there was little if any reason to continue to restrict the activities of others not in these situations. Other critics noted that as the biggest Covid-19 problems were concentrated in the Toronto area, other parts of the provinces should be permitted to open more extensively as they did not face the same circumstances.
Most schools in Canada have been closed over the past couple of months, but there have been some developments in education policy of late that are worthy of attention. In Alberta, the provincial government has introduced Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act, which facilitates the establishment of charter schools. Charter schools are independently-run, non-profit institutions within the public system which typically have a focus on a particular group of students – for example, children with learning disabilities, a particular vocational emphasis or an all-girls school.
What can be said about the horrible crisis in long term care (LTC) facilities that has been revealed by the COVID-19 crisis? That our society has been negligent regarding the care of our elderly population? Absolutely. That there was not sufficient attention being paid to conditions in LTC facilities for many years? Definitely.
Last week saw a worrisome development at the St. John’s Telegram in Newfoundland. The Telegram is a venerable Canadian publication, having been around since the late 1800s. It seems that one of their desk editors, Brian Jones, in a column entitled “Pandemic is an Extended Holiday for Public Sector Workers”, had the nerve to question why government workers were mostly sitting at home doing nothing at full pay and benefits, while those in the private sector who pay for the public sector were seeing their jobs annihilated and being asked to live on a paltry $2,000 a month.
One would have to presume that Kelly McParland had his tongue firmly in cheek when he penned a recent column for the National Post on the glories of working for the government over the private sector. Recent experience with the COVID-19 crisis would certainly support this premise, however, as we see the carnage in private sector employment while the vast majority of public sector workers are underworked, if they are working at all, while enjoying full salary and benefits courtesy of taxes paid by the beleaguered private sector.
Ontarians have been spending a lot more time at home since the COVID-19 lockdown began, and have had much less ability than usual to manage the timing of their electricity consumption to use hydro at off-peak times and avoid peak usage pricing whenever possible. In response to this situation, back in March the Ontario government temporarily suspended time-of-use pricing for hydro so that all electricity consumed would be billed at the lowest rate, and this was recently extended until the end of May 2020.
It’s no secret that Alberta and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan have been seriously disadvantaged for years by policies pursued by the Trudeau government in the oil and gas sector. Those two provinces rewarded the Liberals’ approach by not electing one Liberal Member of Parliament in the October 2019 federal election, but that doesn’t seem to have changed the government’s approach one bit. If anything, the Trudeau Liberals are doubling down on policies that hurt the energy-producing provinces, to the detriment of all of Canada.
As would be expected with such a serious crisis such as the COVID-19 virus, there has been much handwringing, second guessing and criticism about what governments have done to contend with the emergency. The Canadian health care system has understandably been a focus of much commentary, positive and negative, and many different suggestions are being made regarding what changes should happen to better prepare Canada for such a crisis in future.
As all Canadian governments continue to monitor the number of new COVID-19 cases by the day – and thankfully see a fairly consistent reduction in new infections – stark differences among some of the provinces and their experiences with the pandemic have emerged. Many of these differences are easily explained by factors such as urban/rural population numbers, the location of international airports where most of the initial cases came into Canada and the prevalence of long term care facilities which have seen the most frequent outbreaks of the virus.
A number of provincial Premiers have come out guns blazing – figuratively of course – in response to the federal Liberal government’s announcement last week that it was banning a number of types of firearms. Ontario Premier Ford weighed in by emphasizing the need to focus on putting an end to smuggling and increasing border measures, as it is well known that the vast majority of guns used to commit crimes illegally enter Canada from the US.
Now that the minds of policy makers and others begin to turn to how our economy will operate after the COVID-19 crisis has passed, one issue arising is how will Canada’s relationship change with its major trading partners. In any given year, Canadian exports and imports each represent about one-third of our Gross Domestic Product, so any change in our international trading arrangements is a big deal. Over the last couple of decades, Canada has also signed several substantial trade agreements, further broadening our economic involvement with other countries. The economies of all Canadian provinces are significantly dependent on trade, with Ontario and Alberta being particularly vulnerable to trade disruption.
Last Sunday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that there would be a further extension of school closures, with the government now planning to keep kids home until at least May 31 as opposed to the previously cited date of May 4, due to ongoing uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minister also assured Ontarians that students would not lose their school year, noting that three-quarters of the school year had been completed while classes were still taking place. He also said that graduating students would be able to move forward with whatever post-secondary education plans they had prior to the pandemic lockdown.
After many weeks of draconian measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, it is wonderful to see that Canada is making progress on “flattening the curve” and people are now starting to discuss when and how we will be planning to open up our economies in the future.
Ontario, it seems, is blessed with an NDP official opposition that has perfect 20-20 hindsight.
When the Ford government recently announced it was devoting $20 million for research into the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, the NDP responded that if cuts had not been made earlier then there would be no need to allocate further money now. In fact, the exact quote from NDP Research and Innovation Critic Catherine Fife was “Researchers could have been working on the global challenge of a COVID-19 vaccine earlier if Doug Ford hadn’t cut their funding and wound down their work a year ago.” Really? Perhaps seeing as the NDP has such perfect hindsight, they should have been recommending vaccine research months ago. Of course that statement is just as ridiculous as the NDP’s groundless criticism.
It was only a few weeks ago that the Ontario government launched its OntarioTogether.com website, established to receive proposals from businesses and others for goods and services to help deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The response from Ontarians has been spectacular. Since the website went live on March 21, 14,000 submissions have been received, resulting in 7,500 leads for various types of emergency supplies and services to date.
As the COVID-19 crisis has progressed in recent weeks, a number of provincial governments have stepped up to take charge of areas that are supposedly the responsibility of the federal government, but where the federal government has turned out not to be been sufficiently diligent or responsive. Although it is encouraging that some political leaders are undertaking positive, constructive action to fight the Covid19 menace, it does beg the question as to why the federal government is not implementing policies it claims to support in key areas of its jurisdiction.
As the duration of the COVID-19 crisis gets longer and health officials learn more about the virus, the issue of testing has gained increased importance. We see the daily numbers outlining how many people have been found to be infected with the virus, how many are under investigation, how many have recovered and how many have died. Understandably, people pay particular attention to the fatality data and it is generally believed at this time that the COVID-19 virus is more deadly than many other flu strains we have experienced in the past.
While all governments understandably are scrambling to keep up with the latest Covid19 developments, best practices and developing policies on the fly, some stark differences in the way governments are handling things are emerging. Last Friday, the Ontario government chose to make public the findings of the models the Ford government is using to forecast the impact the virus will have on the province in terms of confirmed, pending, recovered cases and deaths. Prior to this release, the Premier warned that the news would be stark, and it was.
We have by now accepted the reality that all governments are spending our money like water with our full support in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is upon us. All of this money will be added to our collective debt, and will need to be paid back at some future time. Despite the current turmoil and the imperative to get money out the door quickly, it is still worth examining where this money is going and whether it is truly being used constructively and for valid pandemic-related matters.
While we all hunker down and wait out the Covid19 health and economic crisis – and dearly hope we see some light at the end of the tunnel sooner than later – there will also be opportunities to consider once the worst has passed and we move into recovery mode. One longstanding inequity that has become even more glaringly obvious during this crisis is the large and growing gap between the compensation and benefits of the vast majority of public sector workers and the private sector taxpayers who pay for them.
While many Canadians are looking for ways to be constructive in the COVID-19 crisis gripping the country, many of our political opposition parties are being anything but helpful.
It is true that in normal circumstances the key job of any opposition party is to oppose the government of the day. But these are not normal times, and an opposition that behaves constructively and makes positive contributions to our current situation would be a refreshing development. Unfortunately, not many thus far have lived up to this goal.
As the initial shock starts to wear off regarding the COVID-19 crisis and life settles into a “new normal” of social distancing, working from home or not working at all, business closures, quarantine and other drastic but necessary measures, more energy is being devoted to making a positive contribution to lessening the impact of the virus. Governments in Canada and abroad have launched efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, test the viability of existing medications to prevent or reduce the severity of the virus and find ways to stretch essential health care resources that are in short supply. Some creative Canadian doctors, for example, have found a way to “MacGyver” a ventilator so that it can be used for more than one patient at a time.
As so many Canadians are extremely worried about their economic health as well as their physical health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a privileged class that does not face the same economic anxieties. I refer, of course, to the vast majority of government employees who not only enjoy on average better salaries, benefits, pensions, much greater job security, shorter work weeks and earlier retirements than the rest of us in normal times, but who so far are mostly unaffected financially by the drastic shifts in our lives caused by this new virus.
At this time of crisis with the Covid19 pandemic, the major priority for Canadians is to get as much factual information as possible so we can do our best to protect ourselves and our loved ones. The reality that there are still many unknowns about this new virus doesn’t help the situation, but we do have many facts and can learn from the experience of other countries that faced the outbreak earlier than Canada.
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about in these days of uncertainty around the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, the ongoing labour dispute between the City of Toronto and the city’s insider workers, CUPE local 79, is looking more and more ominous. Workers could be off the job as early as this Saturday if no agreement is reached, which would mean the loss of a number of important services. Most concerning is that Toronto Public Health employees are included in the mix, including nurses who are currently involved in testing for COVID-19, staffing call centres fielding questions about the virus and other related services.
After a very low key, rather boring leadership contest, Steven Del Duca easily prevailed over his rivals to become the new leader of the Ontario Liberal Party this past weekend. Del Duca won on the first ballot with an impressive 58.5 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the second-place finisher, Michael Coteau, with 17 per cent. Del Duca had done a very effective job of signing up Liberal party members throughout the course of the leadership campaign and had been the clear frontrunner for many weeks leading up to the vote.
This past Monday, the Ford government announced that it would be launching environmental and other studies for an infrastructure project to build a Northern Road Link to the Ring of Fire mining development in Northern Ontario. The announcement was made at the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference, in conjunction with leaders from the Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, who expressed their strong support for the initiative. The key objective of the project is to establish a permanent, all-season access route to mines in the Ring of Fire, and also connect a number of First Nations communities to Ontario’s highway network. Other benefits include the establishment of high speed internet and reliable cellular service for First Nations and other communities in the area.
If we were not painfully aware of the many fiascos that have taken place in the implementation of Ottawa’s new light rail transit (LRT) system, it would be difficult to believe that even government could screw things up so very badly. The new transit system in the Nation’s Capital was launched in September 2019, a year later than scheduled. Since then, it has been plagued by delays, mechanical problems, lack of co-ordination between the LRT and connecting buses and general dysfunction. And of course more public money is being thrown at the project over and above the initial budget to fix the many emerging problems.
While the country is grappling with the very serious issues of a potential corona virus pandemic and national gridlock as a result of various rail blockades and other protests causing major difficulties for the economy, there have also been some less critical but nevertheless odd and problematic political miscalculations in recent days.
The news late Sunday that the Teck Frontier oil sands project was to be “temporarily” put on hold was shocking in some ways, yet predictable in others. Despite the fact the project had been in various planning and evaluation stages for the better part of a decade, opposition by the usual suspects, many of whom are funded by offshore monies and are just fine with inflicting damage on Canada, had grown sharply in recent months as the end of February deadline for Cabinet approval approached.
For those folks who seem to think that government deficits and debt don’t matter, a recent Fraser Institute report is an eye-opener. All too often taxpayers view government debt as an abstract concept that really doesn’t affect them very much, and short-term thinking encourages taxpayers to favour consuming more government services today and put off paying for them until sometime in the indefinite future. The study examined the growing amount of interest being paid on debts incurred by the federal and provincial governments in the fiscal year 2019-2020, and the findings ain’t pretty.
For Ontario, interest on the province’s debt comes in just under $13 billion, which is more than the province allocates for post-secondary education. $13 billion could buy a lot more help for autistic children, boost health care services and otherwise be used much more productively than merely covering debt interest.
Caught up amid all of the attention being paid to the protests paralysing many parts of Canada is a looming deadline for a very important Alberta oilsands project on the cusp of being approved – or not – by the federal Liberal government. The Teck Frontier project, located in northeastern Alberta, has been in the planning and approval stages since 2012. The project has successfully achieved all of the environmental and other regulatory requirements mandated by various levels of government, and has reached agreement with every one of the 14 indigenous communities in the affected area. It is estimated that the project will employ as many as 7,000 full time workers during its construction and about 2,500 workers on an ongoing basis. The project has a value of $20.6 billion and is expected to contribute $70 billion in tax revenues to governments during its 40-year lifespan. It’s fate currently stands to be determined by the federal Liberal Cabinet by the end of this month.
The term Third Sector is typically used to include a range of organizations that are neither private sector companies nor government departments or agencies, and whose goal is usually to promote a particular social objective or represent the interests of a specific group in society. Examples of third sector entities include not-for-profits, charities, various associations, social enterprises and co-operatives. Trade unions are sometimes also included in the third sector. In recent years, the third sector has been growing by leaps and bounds in Canada and around the world.
Most Ontarians know how badly under-capacity our vital health care system is at present, and how things like long waiting lists, hallway health care, patients having to stay in costly hospital beds due to the lack of long-term care beds, doctor shortages and other problems plague the system. Sadly, needed reform is being prevented by a slavish devotion to a monopoly public system that is not performing effectively for citizens yet is costing us a fortune. Although the Ford government is attempting some significant reforms, more fundamental structural change is needed if we are to see the system truly improve, and our aging population makes the need for major changes especially urgent.
In the never-ending war of words among the various factions in the ongoing Ontario teachers’ dispute, the NDP has just upped the ante by calling for the firing of Education Minister Stephen Lecce. According to the NDP, the hashtag #FireLecce is one of the top trending topics in Canada on twitter, which is not much of an accomplishment considering how easy it is to get lots of twitter bots and trolls on the left to click on one whacky topic or another. In the eyes of the NDP, however, Lecce’s real sin is doing his job properly, which means respecting the interests of taxpayers.
Last week a very worrisome report entitled “Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act” came out from the federal Liberal government on the future of communications and broadcasting in Canada. The report purports to be forward-looking, but its recommendations merely recommend more of the same of what is already not working in our national media and broadcasting system.
While the leadership contest for the Conservative Party of Canada is getting lots of headlines these days, another important leadership race is getting much less attention. In just over a month, the Ontario Liberals will be choosing their new leader. The Ontario Liberal race was not exactly knocked out of the headlines by the federal Conservative rivalry. There has been very little attention paid to the Ontario Liberal competition at all, probably because it has been, well, pretty boring. It seems that not many hot issues have entered the fray, no major disputes among the candidates have arisen so far, and it has generally been a rather dull affair.
For many years health professionals have warned about the possibility of a new pandemic that could be very destructive in terms of lives lost and other negative outcomes. The recent emergence of the corona virus – a viral relative to SARS – has many people asking if this could be the “big one”. At present, we know the disease originated in the Wuhan region of China, can be deadly, and has already migrated to many other parts of the world, including Canada. This has all happened in a very short time period, considering that the World Health Organization (WHO) first informed the public of the flu-like outbreak as recently as January 9.
During last year’s federal election, the Liberals promised a tax cut for the middle class in the form of an increase in the Basic Personal Amount (BPA) – the amount of income that is exempt from personal income taxes. They committed to raising the BPA to $15,000 gradually over the next four years from $12,069 in the 2019 tax year. In dollar terms, this much-vaunted tax cut is pretty miniscule – less than $50 monthly once fully implemented in 2023 – and won’t make a real difference for most Canadians. Those who earn income in the $150,000 range will not be eligible for this bonanza. The impact of this change will mean more Canadians not paying any income tax. There are many other taxes as well – payroll taxes, property taxes, excise taxes, carbon taxes, health taxes etc – but they are often offset by government rebates, tax credits and other measures. Although estimates vary somewhat, it seems that about 40 per cent of Canadians don’t pay any taxes at all, which is not out of whack with comparable data in the US and other developed countries.
Last week Premier Doug Ford announced the creation of a new post-secondary scholarship program to honour the memories of the 57 Canadian victims of the Ukrainian airliner shot down by the Iranian regime earlier this month. The provincial government will establish scholarships for 57 students annually beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. Although the details have yet to be fully worked out, the Premier announced that the secondary schools which lost students or teachers in the crash and families of the victims will have input into selecting recipients of the scholarships, which will also be based on financial need and academic results.
That wailing and gnashing of teeth you hear is the sound of unions, some politicians and others on the left bemoaning the exodus of well-paid manufacturing jobs from Ontario, and Canada for that matter, as detailed in a new study released this week.
Anyone paying attention for the last few years knows that the manufacturing sector in Ontario has shrunk significantly, and this phenomenon was quantified in a recent analysis by Statistics Canada. The study looked at the period from 2000-2015, and found that the share of the workforce represented by manufacturing declined over that period by 6.8 per cent in Toronto and 9.8 per cent in Oshawa. As men predominate as workers in manufacturing, they have been disproportionately affected, with men in Toronto not having experienced an increase in their wages since 2000. In Windsor, where the auto industry has shrunk dramatically, the average man’s wage has declined by 14 per cent over the 15-year period, while male workers in Chatham-Kent saw a 10 per cent drop. Results were similarly dire for other parts of the province. Overall, the Statscan study found significantly fewer men working full time over the period examined than in previous years.
As the new year gets into full swing, Ontario teachers are predictably back on the picket lines. Although many issues are supposedly on the bargaining table, there appear to be two major sticking points at present – the government’s offer of a one per cent per year wage increase and class sizes. On the former, several of the teachers’ unions involved have taken the provincial government to court, so that matter may well be decided outside of the bargaining table. On the question of class sizes, despite claims of some that smaller classes are always preferable for better student outcomes, it is worth a look at the results of research done on this contentious issue.
While the world is understandably transfixed by the ongoing geopolitical crisis in the Middle East and the horrific airplane crash that killed 63 Canadians, the United Nations-led process to drastically change the way the financial markets of the world operate is accelerating behind the scenes, with major implications for all Canadians. Much of this process is taking place as a response to the so-called climate crisis, which itself is based on often-questionable premises and predictions. The exact nature and urgency of this crisis continues to be anything but a foregone conclusion, with many accomplished and credible scientific experts expressing doubt that the extreme measures being pursued, and the serious impacts they will have on many aspects of our lives, are necessary. And there is no question that the changes underway are dramatic and likely to be very difficult to reverse once implemented.
While news of the killing of Iranian Commander Qasem Soleimani and other senior Iranian officials was capturing the attention of many people around the world over the past few days, a strange Ontario angle to the story unfolded. Two NDP MPPs – Rima Berns-McGown and Marit Styles – attended an anti-American rally supportive of Soleimani in Toronto. In case there was any doubt as to who was behind the rally to show support for Soleimani and denounce the US, the flags of the terrorist group Hezbollah and the Iraqi paramilitary organization Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were prominent at the event. There are many differing opinions on exactly what the US attack on senior Iranian figures will mean for the world and whether it was justified or not, but the notion of elected representatives in Ontario publicly supporting groups that have been classified as terrorist organizations by the Canadian government and many others is difficult to fathom or justify. When questioned, NDP officials claimed that the two MPPs were merely attending the rally as a gesture “in support of peace”. That’s quite a stretch.
In the year ahead, Ontario will face many similar challenges to other parts of Canada, plus a few unique to this province. As the next Ontario election is scheduled for June 2, 2022, the Ford government will be hitting the second half of its mandate in mid-2020. Typically, all governments try hard to get any tough medicine out of the way in the first half of their tenure so they can roll out the goodies in the last couple of years to encourage voters to re-elect them. The Ford government clearly followed this approach, with a jam-packed legislative agenda in their first year in power.
After working as an economist for over 40 years, and making lots of wrong predictions over that time, you would think I had learned my lesson about trying to predict the future. But there is something just too tempting at the beginning of a new year about taking a stab at figuring out how some of the major events of the day will unfold, so here goes.
Boring old Canada had more than its share of excitement in 2019, yet many Canadians may have wished for less. The year got off with a bang when early details of what became the SNC-Lavalin scandal hit the press in early February. In the weeks following, more and more information was revealed about how then Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould stymied the wishes of Prime Minister Trudeau and others in his circle to intervene in an ongoing criminal legal proceeding against SNC-Lavalin. Much of the media coverage focused on the shoddy treatment accorded to Wilson-Raybould by the Liberal leadership, and also her colleague Jane Philpott, who resigned over the government’s mishandling of the matter. The scandal undermined the Trudeau government’s credibility in a number of areas, including boasts about its feminist bona fides, transparency and respect for the law.
This time of year always provokes a desire to reflect, and what better to reflect upon than the many things we Canadians have to be thankful for. There are lots of good reasons Canada has consistently ranked very well in international comparisons for many decades. Although the government of the day, whatever its political stripe, always takes credit for Canada’s consistently high position among the countries that have the highest standard of living, the reality is that lots of good luck and some good planning means we Canadians enjoy an enviable existence which transcends whatever government happens to be in power.
Many people reacted with surprise to Economic Development Minister Vic Fedelli’s request to the federal Immigration Minister to double the number of economic immigrants allocated to Ontario. They shouldn’t have. For some time now, Ontario and other provinces have been talking about shortages of workers with a range of different skills, and these shortages are getting worse as the population ages and younger generations are not numerous enough or lack the appropriate training to fill the gaps.
The latest survey by two different polling firms – DART and Angus Reid – on the popularity of provincial premiers is out and – surprise! – the most unpopular premiers are those who are trying to do the right thing for taxpayers and their province’s finances. The most popular Premiers – Quebec’s Francois Legault and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe are both in the rather enviable position of having their predecessors do most of the heavy lifting to get provincial finances in order, and are enjoying the results in their own personal popularity. At the other end of the spectrum, approval ratings have fallen for Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford, both of whom have been trying to reverse course following the very big-spending, high deficit and debt governments that preceded them. There are factors at play other than provincial finances; especially in the case of Ford whose first year in power was marred by a number of missteps and policy reversals, but there is no doubt that the perception of “government cuts” is affecting the political popularity sweepstakes.
As the war of words and competing narratives escalates between the Ontario government and the various teachers’ unions, yet another Fraser Institute report has come out to reinforce the fact that spending in the Ontario public school system has outpaced the national average for the past few years. This is in direct contradiction to the unions’ ongoing claims that education spending is being cut. The Fraser report found instead that Ontario’s per student spending had increased by 3.1 per cent annually in recent years, as compared to a national average of 2.9 per cent. This is also well in excess of the rate of inflation during the period. Not surprisingly, the main driver behind the spending increases was the compensation of teachers and other education workers, especially with respect to the very generous pension component of compensation.
Once again France is convulsed by strikes and protests, this time over a sweeping reform that French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to introduce to the country’s byzantine, antiquated and unfair pension system. Macron’s proposed changes are very ambitious, and include collapsing the current 42 different pensions systems – with all of their variable benefits, terms and retirement ages – into one plan in which all workers are treated equally. The new plan would see each employee, no matter where they were employed, earn “retirement points” based on amount of time worked, with this accumulation of points transferred from job to job over the course of a career, and with no one receiving less than 1000 Euros monthly.
Many Canadians are likely at least somewhat aware of the UN 2030 agenda on issues such as migration and indigenous matters, as was discussed in Part I of this two-part series. But there are many more components to this agenda that are less well-known, and very worrisome.
Many Canadians may be somewhat aware of recent activities of various United Nations (UN) bodies on high-profile issues such as migration, the rights of indigenous people and climate change, but it is unlikely most are informed on the massive sweep and seriousness of actions under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by many of our governments in Canada that will affect us all profoundly in the years ahead. A wake-up call is badly needed so Canadians can better understand what is going on under the radar to substantially change our economy and society and many others around the world. This two part series for the Niagara Independent will provide a brief overview of some of the many important issues involved for Canada.
The Fraser Institute has come out with its latest report on the differential between wages in the public sector compared to the private sector in 2018 and – surprise! – once again government employees come out on top. The study included employees from all levels of government, municipal, provincial and federal, and found that the wage advantage alone for government workers was 10.3 per cent. This does not include the differences in other elements of overall compensation – things like pensions, early retirement, job security etc. When these elements are added in, they significantly worsen the public/private sector differential.
Last week the dominant Ontario headline was the revelation that the Ford government had, over a year ago, cancelled over 700 renewable energy contracts at a cost of $230 million. This old news was revealed only recently because apparently the government had included this expenditure under “other transactions” in government documents outlining 2018-2019 fiscal year spending, instead of citing it as a separate line item. NDP Opposition leader Andrea Horwath is now asking the Auditor-General to launch an inquiry into the cancellation of these contracts and the cost incurred. Unfortunately, Ms. Horwath was not at all critical of the former Liberal government when they entered into these contracts which guaranteed excessively high payments to green energy companies at great expense to Ontario ratepayers. The Ford government claims that cancelling these contracts will end up saving taxpayers just under $800 million, and was well worth doing to get a grip on the sky-high hydro rates in Ontario. Some industry sources disputed that number, but many of those very same sources were beneficiaries of the contracts so naturally opposed their cancellation.
I spent last weekend in Red Deer, Alberta where I was speaking at a conference put on by the Freedom Talk group (freedomtalk.ca) – a small “c” conservative gathering of businesspeople, politicians, journalists and citizens concerned about the future of Western Canada within the Canadian federation. Having dealt with years of sluggish prices for the commodities that drive the Alberta and Saskatchewan economies, policies like equalization that continue to punish the West to the benefit of other provinces and uncooperative governments in Ottawa, Quebec and some other provinces, Western Canadians are justifiably unhappy with the current state of affairs. The results of the recent federal election, with the West’s nemesis Justin Trudeau being awarded a second term – albeit with a minority – served only to heighten tensions. Some arrogant comments from Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet also added fuel to the fire.
Since their election, the Ford government has made many changes to health care in the province, most of which have involved targeted measures within the existing health care system structure. For example, there have been additions to existing hospitals and other facilities, investments in new hospitals and new equipment, all with the goal of increasing system capacity to reduce “hallway health care”, cut down on wait times and generally make the system more responsive to patient needs. All of these changes were needed, but did not deal with the flaws in the overall structure of the system. Last week, the government announced its plans to comprehensively restructure Ontario health care, significantly downsize the existing health care bureaucracy and redirect the savings achieved into frontline health services.
The only news we seem to hear lately about the public school system concerns the terrible things the Ford government is supposedly inflicting on students and the never-ending strike threats from the various teachers’ unions. But in a much less headline-grabbing way, the Ontario government is implementing a number of positive changes to the system that should be welcomed by students, teachers and taxpayers alike. These changes are largely geared to better prepare students for the future job market and the wave of technological change that is eliminating the need for many existing skills while creating demand for new ones.
Although not a great deal of attention was paid to it, Ontario taxpayers recently dodged a potentially very costly bullet that involved the so-called Sidewalk Labs experiment. This project, initially announced in 2017, was to be a revolutionary “futuristic neighbourhood” project on the Toronto waterfront, complete with technology-enabled infrastructure including self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence controlling heating and cooling with omnipresent sensors recording and storing massive amounts of data on all of the goings-on in the neighbourhood. Google’s subsidiary Sidewalk Labs had grandiose intentions, originally seeking a large parcel of 190 acres of undeveloped waterfront property on which to conduct this experiment, with the expectation that this very valuable land would be effectively handed over to Google at nominal cost.
Ontario electricity consumers are well aware that their hydro bills keep going up despite attempts by the Conservative government to fulfill their election promise to reduce electricity costs by 12 per cent. It would be easy to blame the current government for not meeting this goal, but the reality is that the Green Energy Act implemented by the previous Liberal government a decade ago continues to haunt Ontario hydro consumers and impose stiff price increases every year.
Most people who are active on social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like – probably think that the main downside of social media is the many opinionated, argumentative and downright distasteful trolls you are bound to encounter along the way. The recent Canadian election revealed a much darker element of social media networks as it became clear that a very deliberate and surreptitious effort was underway to censor and distort information that was not favourable to the Trudeau Liberals. As these networks become more pervasive and influential in our day-to-day lives, this should be of great concern to anyone who values free speech and fair elections.
After a period of almost 5 months under the cone of silence believed to be requested by the federal Conservatives prior to the national election, Doug Ford reemerged this week to lead off the fall session of the Ontario Legislature. Reacting to the election results, one of Ford’s first statements was a call for national unity, noting that Ontario should step up and help unite Canada, and do what it can to help heal the regional divisions that have arisen largely because of federal policies that pit one part of the country against another. Given the white-hot anger in Alberta and Saskatchewan at present, this will be a very tall order and it could be seen as presumptuous for the Ontario Premier to assume such a role, but there are some ways in which Ontario politicians can be a positive force in calming regional rifts.
When the Ontario government announced late last week they would not be pursuing the ambitious municipal reform they had previously championed, virtually all existing municipal politicians breathed a big sigh of relief. This should worry Ontarians as there is ample evidence that municipalities in the province are inefficient with much overlap and duplication among services provided and contain far too many municipal politicians. Instead of placing some sensible demands on municipalities to clean up their act, the province is instead going to give them even more money – $143 million or so – as part of a Municipal Modernization initiative to find efficiencies and improve services. In the Niagara area, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati has long been on the record as saying the region has far too many politicians. He also commented that this was not a matter of saving money, but a problem with having too many cooks in the kitchen. Although the too many cooks comment is accurate, it is also a matter of saving money as the more politicians there are, the higher the cost to ratepayers for their compensation and that of the bureaucracies that support them.
It now might sound quaint, but there was a time when government employees prided themselves on being non-partisan and the pursuit of a career in the public service was focused on actually serving the public and not engaging in overtly partisan political activity. I can still remember when someone working for the government would be loath to tell anyone how they voted in an election as they believed it would affect the perception of them being able to do their job professionally and without bias. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. The last couple of decades have seen increased partisanship within the public sector and much more vocal expression of support or opposition to political parties than in the past.
To think that Canadians believed we were getting a break from that separatism stuff – at least for a while. Sadly, the fractured 2019 election results show that separatist sentiment is back on not one, but two different fronts. The fact that no political party won a majority means that the coming days and possibly weeks will be fraught with uncertainty as the various parties consider their options and contemplate potential coalition partners. Whatever the end result may look like, it is guaranteed that a big chunk of the Canadian population is going to be very unhappy.
After years of dithering, changes in government at various levels and changes in plans, this week saw agreement between the province and the city of Toronto on yet another approach to improve mass transit in Canada’s biggest city. During last year’s provincial election campaign, one of the Conservative promises was a plan to “upload” the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to the provincial level, with the Ontario government taking over responsibility for funding and planning the transit system. This concept was strongly opposed by the city of Toronto, the TTC and the opposition NDP party, among others. After being elected, the Ford government also floated the concept of the Ontario Line – running from the CNE to the Ontario Science Centre – as preferable to the previously-planned downtown relief line on which some work had already begun.
This series of articles outlining the many failures, lies and bizarre moves of Justin Trudeau was originally going to be a two-parter, but I am now finding that four parts is barely enough to cover what has turned out to be such a long list. However, the election is mere days away, so this series must be concluded. Please excuse any overly brief treatment of issues that have not been mentioned to date.
Although the first part of Trudeau’s tenure was certainly full of broken promises, errors of omission and commission as well as outright lies, the pace seemed to pick up markedly in the last 18 months of the four-year term. This was partly because some of the problems had been kept under the radar for a while but eventually became public, but also because some of the media decided the frequency and severity of Trudeau screw-ups could no longer be ignored. That being said, there is no doubt that Liberal-friendly media covered up or minimized many serious errors made by Trudeau and his colleagues, and that complicity continues to this day.
The 2015 election of Justin Trudeau took place in the context of a massive public relations exercise that glossed over the very thin resume and skill set Trudeau actually possessed and promoted him as an uber-progressive, youthful leader that could not only put Canada on the right path, but the world as well. Fawning feature stories in Rolling Stone and Vogue held out Trudeau as a modern leader for our times, with appeal far beyond Canada’s borders. But reality always catches up with the hype eventually, and in 2017 and 2018 it started to appear that the emperor had no clothes.
The recent horrific bullying incident involving a young student stabbed to death in Hamilton in the presence of his mother has to give every parent pause about what is going on in schools today. The fact that the perpetrators were well known to be bullies prior to this tragic event, and that the school was apparently incapable of doing anything about it, is especially worrisome. Of course bullying has always been an issue, and will continue to be, but it seems that these days there are more high-profile incidents in schools and more serious outcomes for the victims.
The bullying problem is complex and has many causes and potential solutions. The prevalence of social media has added a new angle to bullying which didn’t exist a generation ago. The structure of the average family has changed significantly as well, as typically both parents are now employed outside the home, leaving kids to their own devices more so than in the past, and with many single-parent families in the mix as well. But the environment in schools has also changed dramatically over the past few decades, and bears examination as it impacts the behaviour and attitudes of young people.
The first budget of the still-new Trudeau government, tabled in March 2016, blew the promise of “maximum $10 billion deficits” right out of the water. The deficit for 2016-17 was projected at $29.4 billion, almost triple that promised prior to the election that took place mere months earlier. Deficits in subsequent years were also forecast to considerably exceed the $10 billion threshold. These deficits are nowhere near some of the record deficits Canada has seen in the past, but they were exceptionally large considering that the Canadian economy was growing, albeit at a sluggish pace of just over 1 per cent. With this first budget, the stage was set early on for substantial debt accumulation under the Trudeau regime, and proof positive that the budget really does not balance itself.
The loud sigh of relief coming from Ontario parents could be heard across the province early this week, as news circulated that Education Minister Stephen Lecce was successful in reaching a tentative deal (subject to ratification by union members) with CUPE school support workers and that a strike had been averted. Federal Conservatives also likely were relieved as the federal Liberals were trying very hard to make the Ontario government’s potential inability to reach such a deal into an election issue and attempt to have that rub off negatively on federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Whatever your perspective, it was certainly good news a deal was reached at the 11th hour, avoiding a disruptive strike. But is it a good deal for taxpayers?
Looking back at the beginning of the Justin Trudeau reign as Canada’s Prime Minister, it is clear that serious missteps, errors and deception started early and continued at very regular intervals through the four years the Liberals have been in government. Many Canadians bought into Trudeau’s claims that he was going to be so much different than previous regimes, in that he would be open and transparent, feminist and diverse, an ardent advocate for the middle class and those working hard to join it, a booster of indigenous people’s fortunes, fiscally responsible and burnish Canada’s image on the world stage. Four years later, it has become clear that “Brand Trudeau” was just like a lot of sales jobs – misleading, phony and dishonest. Many Canadians have justifiably been left feeling duped and betrayed.
By the time you read this, things may well have changed yet again. At the time of writing, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), whose members work in various support capacities in the Ontario public school system, were planning to go back to the bargaining table. In the past few days, the union first instructed its members to work to rule, then after just 48 hours of that said workers would be on strike as of Monday Oct. 7, then a day later retracted that to agree to go back to bargaining with the provincial government. It’s been a whirlwind of unpredictability, with nervous parents wondering whether their children will be in school next week and if they must disrupt their lives and plan for a strike. York and Peel school boards have already said that if these support staff employees do go on strike next Monday, they plan to close the schools.
A recent national opinion poll conducted by Angus Reid/Postmedia looked at the impact the current provincial government in the various provinces could have on voters’ intentions in the federal election. The results varied across provinces, but Ontario stood out as the province in which the highest percentage – about half – of all respondents said their federal voting plans would be affected by the provincial government, and primarily in a way that would make them less likely to support the federal Conservatives under Andrew Scheer. This was deemed to be a result of the so-called “Ford” Factor, and a reflection of how Doug Ford’s popularity has declined as his government has committed a number of missteps in their haste to cope with the mess left to them by the previous Liberal government.
A judge recently imposed a significant fine on officials of Unifor, the auto industry union, for engaging in a prolonged illegal strike. The matter involved auto parts company Nemak, a supplier to General Motors. The dispute arose when Nemak announced that it was planning to close the Windsor plant in 2020, two years earlier than when the current collective agreement expires in 2022. Nemak stated that the plant was operating at very low capacity and was too small and inefficient to be competitive in today’s market environment, leading to the accelerated plant closing timeline.
It was recently revealed that the Ontario deficit for the 2018-2019 fiscal year came in at $7.4 billion – much lower than the $11.7 billion the Ford government had predicted it would be back in the spring. This new and improved deficit number immediately elicited cries from the opposition parties that this was proof the government had exaggerated the deficit in the first place to score political points, and that the fabled Liberal spending spree of the last few years before the June 2018 election had not been as bad as advertised. As usual, the truth is a bit more complicated.
Difficult as it is to avert my eyes from the ongoing gong show that is federal Liberal politics, it is nevertheless worth looking at the interesting investigation currently underway in Alberta into foreign-funded environmental groups. Shortly after being elected this past spring, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney initiated an inquiry into the activities of a number of charities with an environmental focus which have been working vociferously for some time to shut down Alberta’s energy industry.
We are now coming up to the one-year mark of cannabis being declared legal in Canada, so the retrospective analyses have started to come in. The Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation (OCRC) recently announced that it had incurred a $42 million loss in its operations to date. Ever-critical of the Ford government, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) used this occasion to lambaste the government for incompetence, claiming that if the government had followed through on the Wynne government’s plan to have a cannabis retailing network left in government hands, such as the province largely does with liquor, things would have been much smoother. It certainly is refreshing and unusual to hear a large government employee union express concern over competence. After all, they are typically preoccupied with fleecing the vast majority of Ontarians who are private sector taxpayers to the maximum extent possible and ensuring that any additional money thrown at government services goes into union coffers and more compensation for already-overpaid bureaucrats instead of improving the quality of public services. This is indeed a rare and welcome change of pace for OPSEU. But, as always, the true concern of OPSEU is not really competence of a government entity, but its ongoing frustration with the election of the Ford government and the consequence that it was not able to put its hands on yet another big pot of union dues in the form of a government-union controlled cannabis retail network.
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.