The Progressive Conservative government at Queen’s Park presented its first fall economic statement on Thursday, and aside from the fact that it shows the province still facing a $14.5 billion deficit, it’s a thoroughly conservative document.
Taxes? Down for rich and poor alike. Rent control? Gone for new buildings. The per-vote subsidy for political parties? On its way out. And in the name of “efficiencies,” the government is proposing to get rid of three currently independent officers of the legislature: the environmental commissioner, the provincial child advocate, and the French language services commissioner.
There’s plenty in the budget to argue over, and the political parties will do exactly that as Bill 57, the Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act, makes its way through the house. But the overwhelming sense here is that while the government is making a number of major moves, it’s asking the public to trust it on the next steps.
Take rent control: on its face, the elimination of rent control for new units leaves prospective tenants worse off, facing more uncertainty as they try to put a roof over their heads. But don’t worry, says the government — sure, rent control is gone, but it’s got a plan to build more housing and thereby keep rent increases low. The public just can’t see it yet, because it won’t be introduced until early 2019.
Trust us, though.
The elimination of the three accountability officers is also concerning. The environmental commissioner’s duties will now be performed in part by the auditor general’s office. Two more accountability offices — the children and youth advocate, and the French language services commissioner — will be folded into the provincial ombudsman’s office. There is some rationale for these moves: the federal environment commissioner is part of the federal auditor general’s office, so this brings Ontario’s approach in line with Canada’s. And the ombudsman’s office does handle complaints very similar to those of the offices it’s now absorbing.
But the details matter, and, as of Friday midday, the government had left some obvious questions unanswered. The biggest is whether the office budgets for the auditor general and the ombudsman will be expanded to accommodate their expanded roles (thus minimizing the cost savings) — if not, the environment, children, and franco-Ontarians are going to need to scrape and claw for budget priority in offices where they’re now just one priority among many.
Again, the government’s answer appears to be: “Trust us.” As Minister of Children and Youth Services Lisa MacLeod told the house yesterday, “I can assure everyone in this legislature that the fiercest child advocate in this province will be me.”
But the government can’t oversee itself. And, given the reality of modern partisan politics, MPPs in the legislature can’t exercise oversight over it either: the Tories have a majority in the house, and they’ve already energetically shut down opposition inquiries into their fiscal plans. The independent officers of the legislature — with their budgetary independence and substantial powers of investigations — are there to do the job that needs doing in the most effective way possible. The officers that the Tories are scrapping were independent specifically because some groups in the province need special protections they can’t get through general-purpose offices.
Trust us, though.
It’s hard for this writer to get exercised about the closure of Ontario Place: the amusement park represented an enormous long-term capital cost, and there are better uses for a massive piece of land on Toronto’s waterfront. The Liberals promised during the 2014 election campaign to keep real-estate development out of the area, but that had as much to do with defeating the NDP MPP for Trinity-Spadina as it did with any policy merits.
But what does the government actually want to do with Ontario Place? We don’t know: the fall economic statement provides no indication.
Over and over again in the mini-budget, the government makes changes that are at least nominally defensible but that can’t be fully evaluated: their effects will depend on details that the public doesn’t yet have. Clarity will come only months or years from now. And all of these moves come with serious risks for the Tories: waterfront politics in Toronto are a third rail the premier stepped on once before, and he could well be shocked again. Then there’s the grim but statistically likely possibility that children in the province’s care will die or be seriously harmed before the next election, leaving the government to explain why they had been stripped of the protection of a dedicated advocate.
When the next election rolls around in 2022 , voters will probably be demanding more than a pat on the head and a “trust us.”
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