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Ontario budget doubles down on left, politico says

The Waterloo Chronicle with Anna Esselment 03 April 2018

Ontarians will soon decide if their government’s fiscal approach is proper, but this year’s election budget is a clear attempt to double down on the left side of the political spectrum.

“Especially with a change in (Progressive Conservative) leadership from Patrick Brown to Doug Ford, this budget really reflects some deeper thinking in how to create a contrast for the choice that will face Ontarians,” said Anna Esselment, an associate professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Waterloo.

The provincial budget announced last week includes a raft of new spending for hospitals, expanded drug and dental programs, a public transit credit, more subsidized child care spaces and “free preschool.”

Those commitments are in addition to previous promises to increase the minimum wage, tackle the gender wage gap and pay tuition for more post-secondary students.

Esselment noted that the People’s Guarantee platform introduced by former Tory leader Patrick Brown had started to move the PCs toward the centre with a carbon tax and more money for things like child care.

“Doug Ford is pulling it back toward the right,” Esselment said, adding that voters really have no idea what the PCs are planning, save for a promise to cut the budget by four per cent, or $5.6 billion, and balance it.

And with the Liberals lagging behind in opinion polls, there’s a lot of ground to cover, Esselment said.

A random sampling of 728 voters by the Forum Poll, a day following last week’s budget announcement, showed the gap between Ontario’s Liberals and Progressive Conservatives has narrowed substantially.

The PCs sill have support from more than a third (36 per cent) of voters, but that’s down from 44 per cent back on March 12. The Liberals now trail with 29 per cent support, which is up six percentage points.

Esselment said the Liberal approach doesn’t appear to be too unlike the one used in the last election when former Tory leader Tim Hudak’s promise to cut 100,000 public sector jobs ended up backfiring, resulting in a Liberal majority.

“Right now they’re giving them too much room — the Liberals and the NDP will start defining what those cuts mean … and when you’ve got a vacuum of $5.6 billion it leaves a lot room for opposition parties to fill in the blanks for voters.”

Kitchener Centre Liberal MPP Daiene Vernile said electors will be able to vote for “core values” this June.

“Do you want to build a caring Ontario or do you want to see your social services cut?” she said.

Vernile highlighted that the Liberal budget includes increased operational funding for libraries, which had been frozen for the past two decades, as well as an $11-billion commitment to support construction of the first high-speed rail service in Canada through Waterloo Region.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic called the announcement a “game changer” and ultimately a “vote of confidence.”

He noted that the province remains committed to matching federal funding for infrastructure and affordable housing upgrades, as well as initiatives aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic.

“There are some things that are important for us as cities if we want to manage the issues and budgetary pressures we’re going to face if we don’t deal with them,” he said.

Kitchener-Conestoga PC MPP Michael Harris said the Liberal promises only translate to higher taxes and increased debt on the shoulders of future generations.

“Budgeting another $6.7-billion deficit means a total debt of over $325 billion, and over $12 billion in annual interest payments that should be going to the priorities we all share,” Harris highlighted in a press release.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the budget fails to live up to its vote-grabbing hype, pointing to caps on proposed Liberal drug and dental plans, as well as hospital increases following years of funding freezes.

“The Liberals have had 15 years to get good things done for people,” said Horwath.

“Instead, Wynne chose to cut and privatize. She chose to sell off Hydro One and make hydro bills too expensive. She chose to let child care become the most expensive in the nation.”

Yet Vernile says Ontario’s economy is growing faster than any other province or G7 country.

“Not everyone is benefitting from the strong economy that we have,” she said. “We want to ensure there is fairness and affordability and opportunity for everyone.

“I think what voters will have to think about is, is the fiscal approach the right approach?” Esselment said. “They might like programs and ideas that grow and support a middle class, which is always good for democracies and good for economies, but do they support the method of doing so, which is to borrow and not to raise revenue the same way?”