Ontario released its fall economic statement on Wednesday. It showed higher revenues thanks to the fact that corporate and personal income taxes have beaten projections. It also includes higher spending for the current year and for projected budgets in years to come. As John Michael McGrath wrote on TVO.org, “The program-spending increases the Tories are projecting are roughly equivalent to the ones we saw under the Liberals from 2014 to 2016 ... This marks a pretty significant turnabout for a Progressive Conservative government elected in opposition to all things Liberal.”
It sure does. But that fits a pattern. The Ford government is continuing to attempt a mulligan of its entire first year in office. So much so, in fact, that the CBC’s Mike Crawley noted that the spending increases for this year mostly involve “putting some spending cuts that didn’t happen back on the government’s books.”
It’s an interesting metric for the government’s rough first year. Ford backing off and reversing course in the face of public opposition has become so routine that it’s hard to think of examples of controversial high-profile policies that the Tories have actually stuck with. There was the slashing of Toronto’s city council. There’s the ongoing opposition to the federal government’s imposition of a carbon price on Ontario residents. Those are big ones. But the story of the government’s first 16 months in office is really one of retreat more than anything else.
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
This isn’t a new observation. It’s not even the first time I’ve made it. In May, in a column in the National Post, I noted the (even then) long list of Ford government reversals and warned of the political cost. As I reread my nearly six-month-old column last night, I cheekily began to wonder whether, if I submitted it, almost verbatim, to my editors here at TVO.org, it would still seem completely fresh. Very little had changed. (Note to my editors: I did not do this.)
But I will quote myself briefly in order to highlight a point I made then that now stands out even more starkly. Paraphrasing a close Ford family associate and Ontario PC supporter, I wrote:
“The [provincial] Tories eventually seem to stumble on a position they feel is politically viable. But they first invest weeks defending a more aggressive position against intense attacks before suddenly abandoning it. If they could skip the entire first part of that process, they’d save themselves a lot of headaches.”
In May, I was writing about specific policy reversals. Though they’d come to have a broader significance in their accumulated totality, the trend emerged through discrete reversals on unrelated issues. My column then, for instance, was pegged most directly to the provincial government’s abandonment of its plans to suddenly change funding formulas for municipal public-health services — although it also referenced the reversal of the government’s planned changes to Ontario’s autism program, funding cuts to services and programs for Franco-Ontarians, and action to head off the loss of teaching jobs due to budget cuts. None of those issues was really related. Unless you followed provincial political news very closely, you might not have been aware of the reversals — or at least not all of them — until you saw my column or another like it (and there was no shortage of others).
While I was watching the fiscal-update roll-out on Wednesday, it occurred to me that, although it’s the same story, we’re seeing these reversals aggregated in a different way. Not in news reports or a columnist’s musings, but in the cold, hard data of accountants. Ontario’s spending for the year will be $1.3 billion more than what was expected — largely because the government is reversing previously announced cuts. That’s a big number.
There’s a side debate here — a semantic one, really — about whether abandoning a planned cut truly equals an increase in spending. I have no appetite to mull that one over. But I direct the reader once more to that quote from my Post column six months ago: “If they could skip the entire first part of that process, they’d save themselves a lot of headaches.” Headaches like some of the stories I saw this morning after running a simple search for “Ontario fiscal update.” A common theme across the reporting? That Ford is “upping spending.” It’s a weird look for the party, given how hard it ran against the Liberal spending of the McGuinty and Wynne years.
But that’s the danger, isn’t it? Whether we’re looking at a retreat from a specific unpopular policy (the autism reversals, for instance) or looking at the accumulated cost of all the reversals tabulated and presented in a fiscal update, the overall pattern is the same: not only does the government absorb the damage of the anger over the proposed cuts, but it also later compounds that damage (likely without meaningfully reversing it) by backing off. When the government backs off a single proposal, it looks weak. When it rolls out a fiscal update backing off a series of them, it looks like a big spender.
Now, to give credit where it’s due, there’s still something positive that we can take away from this: the government is obviously trying to be more responsive to the public. I’m skeptical that the approach will work, but the effort itself, even if it’s belated, still has value and should be welcomed. Whatever your views on this government, it is the government and will be for another three years.
It’s going to be an interesting three years. How much of the remaining time will the Tories spend trying to move beyond the government’s first 12 months? And can they?