Some rare political civility in Ontario’s new budget

It’s not just the size of the numbers that’s unprecedented in the 2021-22 budget — the praise for the Opposition leader may well be a first, too
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 24, 2021
Ontario finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, left (Christopher Katsarov/CP); Ontario NDP and Opposition leader Andrea Horwath. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Truth be told, I’ve lost count of how many Ontario budgets I’ve covered over the decades. It’s certainly in the mid-to-high-30s. I’ve seen the dollar figures soar over the years — never more so than during the past 12 months, as the province worked to protect people from the ravages of the worst global pandemic in a century.

But amid the thousands of words and numbers I read in Wednesday’s budget documents — and in Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy’s speech — I saw something I’m sure I’d never seen before.

In his budget speech in the legislature, Bethlenfalvy pointed out what so many women already know: that this COVID-19 recession has disproportionately affected women, so much so that it’s been dubbed a “she-cession.”

So the treasurer wanted to give props where he felt they were due.

“I’d like to recognize the critical leadership of strong, capable, brilliant women during this pandemic,” Bethlenfalvy began.

The first name he mentioned was Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, who has, through almost daily briefings for nearly a year, become a familiar presence to millions of Ontarians.

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The finance minister then mentioned three senior cabinet colleagues — the ministers of health and long-term care and the solicitor general — for “steady leadership,” working “tirelessly,” and guiding the province’s emergency response. (Reasonable people will differ on how much thanks or criticism those ministers are due, but it’s not inconsistent with tradition for a finance minister to thank his colleagues.)

Then came one last name I did not expect to hear.

“… and the leader of the Opposition, who has played such an important role holding our government to account.”

Say what?

Did I hear that right? Did the Progressive Conservative finance minister just use precious time in his budget speech to thank his chief New Democratic Party tormentor?

Apparently, he did. There it was in black and white on a copy of the speech distributed to members of the media. I’m 99 per cent sure I’ve never heard that done before.

Not wanting to take the word of my increasingly faulty memory, I immediately emailed half a dozen former finance ministers, who, between them, had probably been responsible for introducing about 25 budgets during their time. Could they ever remember having thanked the leader of the Opposition during their budgets?

“Not that I can recall,” emailed Ernie Eves, who was responsible for most of the budgets during the “Common Sense Revolution” years of the mid-to-late-’90s. (Eves did, though, publicly thank a Liberal predecessor, Robert Nixon, who had sent him a note of congratulations after he got the treasurer’s job).

“No,” said Janet Ecker, who took on the budget job for Eves when he replaced Mike Harris as premier in 2002. “But I believe Ernie and I did thank individual MPPs from [the Opposition] on specific initiatives from time to time.”

“No, I did not,” answered Floyd Laughren, the only NDP finance minister in Ontario history (1990 to 1995). Laughren does remember complimenting Liberal finance critic Gerry Phillips. “We did include him in on various briefings etc.  He was knowledgeable, tough, and fair. I had and still have enormous respect for him.”

“I regularly acknowledged the opposition during my pre-budget and post-budget speeches at the Empire/Canadian/Economic Club,” wrote Charles Sousa, who was Premier Kathleen Wynne’s lone finance minister from 2013 to 2018. “But I don’t recall thanking the opposition leader during a budget speech in the house.”

Add former ministers Dwight Duncan and Greg Sorbara to the list as well.

This should not be read as any criticism of those six. It would be highly unusual to thank your chief opponent during the budget speech and might even drum up some needless jealousy in your own backbenches, since everyone craves a mention in the address.

Which is why Bethlenfalvy’s willingness to compliment Horwath is so extraordinary.

During a pre-speech virtual budget briefing, I asked the minister, whose parents came to Canada as refugees from Hungary, why he planned to mention Horwath. His response: “I’m a big believer in democracy. I want to acknowledge her and the great women leading this province.”

Yes, cynics will say Bethlenfalvy did it to ingratiate himself with the Opposition, but I doubt it. Everyone knows Horwath isn’t going to take it easy on this government over a one-sentence compliment in the budget speech.

Let’s shelve our cynicism for one minute and just acknowledge a classy gesture when we see one. If we want politics to be less personally destructive and more civil, we need to call out the brutal behavior and encourage and compliment acts of kindness.

So: well done, Treasurer.

Now we return you to your regularly scheduled programming — intense debate over the advisability of this government’s decisions in its 2021-22 budget.

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