It’s totally normal for reporters to ask about a change in government policy: What will this cost? How much will it save? But on Thursday, Lisa MacLeod, the minister of children, community and social services, didn’t want to say what the announced changes to Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program would mean in terms of the budget.
“Let me be perfectly clear: the previous Liberal budget was based on fiction,” MacLeod said, rejecting a reporter’s comparison of this week’s changes with those contained in the Liberals’ spring budget. She then added, in case anyone had missed the point, “That budget was fake.”
Nearly all of the government’s planned changes will make Ontario’s two major social-assistance programs less generous. The province is looking at bringing its definition of “disability” in line with one of two used by the federal government, and whichever definition it goes with will be more restrictive than the one in place now. There is some good news for existing ODSP recipients: they’ll be grandfathered in, for the time being, and they’ll be allowed to earn more before the government claws back their benefits. It’s more of a mixed bag for Ontario Works recipients. People who work more than 20 hours a week could take a hit: the new earnings clawback will be 75 per cent for any income over $300 a month — currently, it’s 50 per cent for any earnings over $200.
It’s not surprising that a conservative government would take a less expansive view of social assistance, and it’s not surprising that the Tories are introducing changes they hope will get people out of the system and into the job market.
What is worth emphasizing — in light not just of Thursday’s announcement, but also of actions such as the scrapping of three independent accountability officers and cuts to services for franco-Ontarians — is the fact that, as much as the Tories would like to pretend otherwise, almost nothing they’ve inherited in the provincial public accounts should come as a surprise
How do we know this? Because the finance minister told us so this past spring, back when he was the interim leader of the Opposition. In his final edition of “Fedeli on Finance,” a handy critical look at the province’s books, Vic Fedeli analyzed the state of the province’s finances under the Liberals, referring to it as a “house of cards.”
A brief recap: in the spring 2018 budget, the Liberals admitted to a $6.7 billion deficit. The auditor general’s office said that that number was incomplete and that the government was claiming revenue it didn’t have (the dispute over pension valuations) and hiding spending it did (the Fair Hydro Plan). According to this reasoning, the province’s deficit was actually at least $10 billion. It was reasonable to assume that if the Tories formed government, they’d eliminate the cap-and-trade system — so add another $2 billion or so. Round that up, and you get $13 billion in deficit.
The official provincial deficit, as of last week’s fall economic statement: $14.5 billion. The $1.5 billion difference is primarily the result of how the Tories treated Liberal “savings and efficiency targets,” which they say would never have been achievable in the real world. But nothing that’s happened since June has fundamentally altered the math.
It’s in every government’s interests to pretend that public accounting is an obscure and arcane business, but this number isn’t surprising or mysterious. It’s the result of accounting choices the Tories have made — choices that are arguably more open and transparent than those of their predecessors but that have necessarily resulted in a larger stated provincial deficit.
The Progressive Conservatives could have been straight with voters during the election about what such choices would mean. Instead, they stated that they were going to keep the Basic Income Pilot (oops). And they failed to mention the possibility of major cuts to French-language services (oops again).
This kind of strategy has, of course, been around for years — but it hasn’t always proved a winning one. When the Liberals came to power in 2003, they “discovered” a deficit that surprised nobody, and the public turned against them when they increased taxes to help balance the books. If it hadn’t been for then-PC leader John Tory’s proposal to give public funding to religious separate schools, the 2007 election might have produced very different results.
Ontario history, then, offers a warning for the Tories: every party may like to pretend that its hand has been forced by the decisions of its predecessors — but voters aren’t always sympathetic.
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