Take a deep breathe, take a valium, or whatever works, because this constant bombardment of COVID stories – about this model or that, predicting thousands more cases a day and thousands more deaths and the collapse of the hospital system in three weeks, no two weeks, no wait, it will be one week – is not helping.
For Ontario, the past year has been pretty well all COVID all the time. And despite fervent efforts and wishes to the contrary, it looks like COVID will dominate our lives well into 2021. The challenges this presents for the provincial government as it ramps up for the 2022 election are formidable.
If news of your provincial budget disappears from the media a few days after its announced, old Finance Ministers used to call that a “a good budget.” Based on that measurement, Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips’ first full budget should get straight A’s as little has been said or written about it since its delivery-day headlines.
Watching the U.S. election results this week, several observations deserve comment.
Despite fights over which votes were valid and should be counted, (and who thought it was a good idea to allow millions of mail-in ballots to count days after an election?) this is the biggest affirmation of democracy in the country in over 100 years, with voter turnout about to top 70 percent, perhaps even higher when everything is said and done. In some counties it reached an unheard of 90 percent.
A retired but well-read journalist often says the four most dangerous words in the English language are “the science is settled.” True science is never settled. It always responds and adapts to the latest evidence and recognizes that the answer to most scientific questions starts with “it depends.”
Over the past week, the quote has come to mind for this author as COVID cases have climbed, resulting in more provincial government-imposed lockdown restrictions in Toronto, Peel and Ottawa.
It is perhaps ironic that after all the criticism from teacher unions that the provincial government’s back to school plan would be a disaster, the first school closure because of a COVID outbreak was caused by a teacher with COVID symptoms. who came to work and mingled with colleagues who were not wearing masks. Over 700 secondary students in Pembroke are now out of school.
This summer we have been deluged with stories on the pandemic, the federal government’s WE Charity scandal, the first black female U.S. vice presidential candidate, not to mention the almost hysterical coverage of whether or not children can safely go back to school this fall.
Perhaps that is why the news that Ontario now has a $38.5 billion deficit — triple last years’ prediction of $9.2 billion, up over $18 billion from just a few short months ago – seemed to disappear after one day of coverage.
Parents can be forgiven if they are sitting in their socially isolated homes screaming at the ceiling in frustration.
After four months of watching the Ontario government handle the COVID-19 pandemic reasonably well, it is perplexing why they can’t seem to get a handle on how, if and when schools are to re-open this fall. And time is running out.
After 100 days of life with the COVID-19 pandemic, what have we learned?
We have seen both the best and the worst of our governments. Ottawa and Ontario moved bureaucratic inertia aside to quickly help people cope. But we were also hit by rules that didn’t make sense and red tape that got in the way; all reminders that it is not the size of government that counts, but its competence.
Look up “accident waiting to happen” in the dictionary. It would not be a surprise to see “long term care homes” listed. The steady increase in COVID-19 deaths in Ontario’s nursing homes over the past weeks begs the question, how could we have possibly gotten it this wrong when it comes to running and regulating our long-term care system.
As the pandemic continues to shut down economies and societies, social isolation causes one to contemplate many questions that arise about the aftermath.
It is clear there was no real rule book for this, no off-the-shelf manual or box on the wall with the reassuring letters “in emergency, break glass.” Our leaders are making “lifeboat” decisions on the fly, based on the best available information they can obtain about this new threat.
What’s with the toilet paper, people? In the midst of what is shaping up to be the worst world pandemic in the last 100 years, the obsession with amassing vast quantities of toilet paper doesn’t speak well of our ability to set the right priorities. Stock piling hand sanitizers and disinfectants, now that makes sense.
But setting that aside, let’s consider several important lessons from past experience that are impacting how we handle today’s pandemic.
In an era when parents can’t get their kids to put down their electronic devices and get off the internet, observers could be forgiven for asking why the Ontario Government’s new requirement for two mandatory e-learning high school courses has become so controversial.
When you consider that the average student may take some 20-plus courses during their four years of high school, how is a requirement that two of them be on-line, a draconian reform? And the Globe and Mail has reported that 58,000 students already took an on-line course in 2017-18 and that enrolment is climbing by 17 per cent a year.
Well, that pretty well makes it unanimous. All four teacher unions are now participating in rotating one-day strikes and work-to-rule actions that limit such things as report card writing, administrative tasks, extracurricular activities and organizing the province-wide Education Quality and Accountability (EQAO) tests.
How we ever came to this sorry state where extracurricular activities and report cards are not core duties is a long story, but here we are.
As we review the past year and look forward to the new, how to describe 2019 for Premier Doug Ford’s provincial government? Words from English author Charles Dickens come to mind – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
It started with the government in full damage control mode because of the Premier’s former chief of staff, Dean French – giving relatives and cronies provincial appointments and creating a virtual reign of terror with his aggressive and bullying style.
There’s an old science fiction movie where the aliens take over humans’ bodies, one by one. The individual still looks like the person they once were, but their behaviour changes, spawning the cult saying “who are you really and what have you done with so and so?”
Observers of the Ontario government’s recent behaviour will be forgiven if they are asking the same of the Premier – who are you really and what have you done with the old Doug Ford?
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.