I confess that I might have lost count, but I think this is the 38th Ontario budget that I’ve covered. So, as you can imagine, I’m constantly on the prowl for new and interesting budget-related things to write about.
And this year’s instalment — the first from Doug Ford’s new Progressive Conservative government — does something I’ve never seen before.
Budget day is the one day on the political calendar when the finance minister really is the star of the show. Governments can rise or fall on whether the minister has accurately gauged the public’s appetite for deeper deficits or for reining in spending. Think of former Ontario NDP finance minister Floyd Laughren, whose first budget, delivered in 1991 at the outset of a horrible recession, sent his party’s fortunes into an inexorable downward spiral. Or consider former federal PC finance minister John Crosbie, whose 1979 budget was defeated on the floor of the House of Commons, sending the Tories back into opposition oblivion.
Or, conversely, take former federal Liberal finance minister Paul Martin, who, in 1995, determined that the public was ready for an assault on the deficit and thus was able to cut spending without suffering the usual negative political consequences.
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Today’s Ontario budget similarly sets the narrative for the next three years. And we’ll know in a few weeks’ time, once the pollsters have done their thing, what the public’s verdict is.
Having said that, Fedeli did something in today’s budget speech that, as far as I can tell, is unheard of. Budget day is designed to give the finance minister the spotlight. But on Thursday, Fedeli shared that spotlight with every single one of his cabinet colleagues. Throughout the budget speech, delivered in the legislature, Fedeli mentioned new program after new program — and, in almost every instance, he praised the minister responsible for implementing said program.
For example: “Leading this complex, multi-year planning process is our colleague Peter Bethlenfalvy, the president of the Treasury Board. His efforts have already resulted in substantial savings and cost avoidance.” And, of course, the mention is designed to get the entire government caucus cheering for the minister in question.
Fedeli’s speech was replete with such references. Every cabinet minister — plus two backbench MPPs — got a special mention. That’s unprecedented.
The inference I drew is that the premier — who, of course, would have had final sign-off on the speech — wants to remind the public that his government is not a one-man show. It’s worth noting that, during the provincial election campaign last spring, the PCs’ numbers didn’t start to inch up until the campaign squad made the team, rather than the leader, the focus of its electoral efforts.
I’d say that having a significant political event not completely revolve around the leader is a welcome development — and it’s a good reminder that politics is a team sport in which many players contribute to any success a government enjoys.
However, the inevitable risk of mentioning so many names is that those who didn’t get mentioned will almost certainly have their noses out of joint.
Clearly, the PCs are keeping their eye on the issue of auto-insurance premiums, something that has mired previous governments in muck. In fact, it’s been a political loser for virtually every Ontario government of the past three decades. Apparently mindful of this, Fedeli mentioned his parliamentary assistant Doug Downey, who’s been tasked with finding a solution to ever-increasing premiums, and MPP Parm Gill, whose private-members’ bill calling for an end to “postal-code discrimination” in setting premiums has captured a lot of attention.
Interestingly, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney was mentioned in relation to new safety and security measures the government has introduced. But, later in the budget speech, when Fedeli referenced the expansion of a community-grants program for francophones, Mulroney — who is also the minister of francophone affairs — was not named. It’s possible that she was omitted because she’d already been mentioned. It’s equally possible that the treasurer didn’t want to draw attention to Mulroney, on whose watch a proposed French-language university was cancelled and the French-language services commissioner’s job was eliminated.
Bottom line: kudos to the finance minister for sharing the spotlight on a day when he had every right to hog it for himself. You can bet that those he did not mention will be anxiously looking forward to hearing their names next year on this day.