Score one for the provincial government. At the eleventh hour, Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce reached a deal with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) who represent 55,000 education system support staff.
In an unusual move, CUPE had quickly abandoned its work-to-rule efforts and decided to take its members directly into a strike. This would have shut down hundreds of schools across the province, leaving frantic parents scrambling to make alternative child care arrangements.
Summer days are fading. Labour Day is over. Kids are back in school. Must be time for another labour dispute in our education system!
Ontario’s parents may be forgiven for thinking they are in a sequel to the movie “Groundhog Day”, when the hero wakes up every morning to repeat the day before. Lucky for him, he uses the repetitive time to learn important life lessons. It would appear the teachers’ and educational workers’ unions have not.
An old politician once said that “voters rarely vote for what they say they want.” This fall, when Canadians choose their next federal government, they will have a chance to prove the truth or falsity of that statement. They need to think carefully about the signals they will send to politicians at all levels of government about what they consider acceptable conduct.
In 2015, Canadian voters chose a leader who promised sunny ways and a government that would be more accountable, more transparent and more ethical than the last one.
Recent coverage of the political appointments’ controversy in Premier Doug Ford’s government brought to mind George Washington Plunkitt, an infamous New York politician in the early 1900’s who once said, “I never accepted a dishonest dollar.” As long as his voters received good value for the money spent, “honest graft” was okay.
While such an attitude is frowned upon today, federal and political governments inevitably get dragged into similar controversies about “cronyism” or “corruption” when faced with the daunting task of appointing literally thousands of individuals to various roles on government agencies, boards and commissions.
Once again Ontario Premier Doug Ford left supporters and critics alike very surprised by his unprecedented cabinet shuffle – unprecedented in both timing and scope. Governments often tweak a cabinet from time to time, but rarely do you see such massive changes so early in a mandate. And even rarer is a change in Finance Minister.
Affable, well-liked and considered competent, Vic Fedeli has been moved to the Economic Development portfolio; admittedly an important post for a government focused on being “open for business” but a significant demotion from the second most important position in government.
What gives? The good news is that the Premier is admitting his government has problems that need to be fixed. Three public events where you get roundly booed and half a dozen public opinion polls showing your support heading downwards can do that to you.
Ask most teachers in the kindergarten to grade 12 system what they think of outcome-based metrics or system-wide testing and you will be greeted with a less than enthusiastic, even hostile response. Their unions have fought the provincial government for years over anything that would provide sound data on the quality of teaching, the progress of students as a group or the performance of a school.
But as any manager worth his or her salt knows, whether in the public or private sector, what gets measured gets done, to use the old canard. Most employees outside schools are familiar with the annual exercise of goal setting for themselves and for their organizations.
For those who thought Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s first budget would be a “blood-on-the-floor-slash-and-burn” exercise, there was disappointment.
For those who thought the still-new Ontario government would exercise strict fiscal discipline and eliminate the budgetary deficit in four years, they too were let down.
Thus, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s promise of a “Goldilocks” approach, balancing the budget not too quickly nor too slowly, was indeed kept. Either direction is a gamble for the government – too fast risks significant damage to services, but too slow means the budget might not be balanced before the next economic downturn occurs.
The most critical date in the life of any government is the day they unveil their first budget. This is where reality strikes — what did we really mean by this campaign promise or that? What takes priority? How can we afford it all?
For voters, it’s the first real chance to assess a new government. Seeing where the government puts taxpayers’ money shows what the government’s real priorities are. Its choices offer important insights into how the government makes those decisions and how transparent it is about it.
For example, is it clear what is being spent on which program or are details buried deep in the budget papers and appendices?
Events happening in Ottawa these days – where two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s most respected cabinet ministers, both women, resigned on principle – add an interesting backdrop to this year’s International Women’s Day.
Former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Jane Philpott are well regarded, both inside and outside of the Ottawa bubble. Resigning from a cabinet position, a role highly prized within the political world, is not done lightly. Whether you agree with their reasons or not, it takes an individual with a deep sense of ethical boundaries.
Some political observers think the Finance Minister is the most powerful cabinet minister, after the Premier. And while technically true, the Minister that often gets the most political attention is the Minister of Education.
It’s not hard to see why. We all went to school. We all have children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews who are in school. Or we have a family member who is a teacher.
Balancing a government’s budget is like losing weight. We all know people, if we haven’t done it ourselves, who start the traditional January crash diet, experience that first wave of excitement as the pounds drop off, only to see the weight creep back on as old eating habits reassert themselves. Reining in government spending to match government revenues is not that different.
The last two governments increased spending to unsustainable levels. Ontario now has the largest debt of any provincial, state or territorial government in the world. Interest on that debt is now one of government’s largest expenses, dwarfed only by health and education spending. The agencies who rate Ontario’s credit rating have continued to downgrade it, in effect telling the world’s investors that we are a riskier place for their money.