For about five minutes after the release of the first budget from Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Government, I felt optimistic. Perhaps the budget was not as bad I originally thought it would be, perhaps the Doug Ford government had reconsidered the more cruel aspects of its planned austerity cuts. A few news agencies were falling all over themselves to declare this a fair budget, “The 2019 Ontario budget is all about putting people first,” Finance Minister Vic Fedeli told reporters after delivering the budget.
Of course, when dealing with the Ford Government, the myth often doesn’t match the reality. As with any budget by Conservative governments, the devil is always in the details – or in the lack of details in this case.
When I read deeper, a few things stood out. There are shockingly few details on many programs; many of ministerial budgets show significant changes, with little to no details on what those changes will be. That is worrisome for a government with such a poor record on implementation of new initiatives, and an even worse record on communicating changes to important programs (see Ontario Autism Program changes). This is also a budget that is light on vision, and ambition.
While this budget is light on details, it is easy to see where the priorities of this government do not lie. $1 billion is being slashed from Ontario’s Children, Community and Social Services Ministry over the next three years, spending will drop from $17 billion for the previous fiscal year, to $16 billion projected for 2021-22. The Ministerial budget for the Environment, Conservation and Parks has been cut from $688 million to $631 million, a reduction of over 8%, with no indication of how those cuts will be achieved. The government is also forecasting a drop in expenditures for the emergency fire fighting budget to just under $70 million from a budget of $212 million in 2018. What can go wrong there?
The budget also shows that reconciliation does not appear to be a priority with the Ford Government. The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs’ budget last year was $146 million. This year its funding was reduced to $74.4 million, a cut of $88 million. Even worse, there is there is no spending earmarked for claim settlements.
The Ford Government will also slash the budget of Legal Aid by 30%. By 2021-22, the legal aid budget will be cut by $164 million in the name of efficiencies and streamlining processes. The effects of these cuts will be felt throughout the legal system, as those who cannot afford lawyers or qualify for legal aid will now be required to represent themselves. The government is also cutting the $45 million allocated for immigration and refugee matters. The provincial government also plans to scrap the Compensation for Victims of Crime Act, which provides financial help to victims and family members of those who have killed or injured as a result of violent crime.
As I said earlier, the devil is always in the details with the Ford Government. The biggest devil in this budget is the buried measure that will make it harder to sue the Ontario government by repealing the Ontario Proceedings Against the Crown Act and replacing it with legislation that would increase the legal threshold necessary to proceed with civil litigation against the government. It would also limit the instances in which the government could be liable for financial compensation to plaintiffs. The government also plans to apply the new law retroactively to existing cases. These measures will effectively allow the Ford Government to escape liability. It is like power without responsibility.
Doug Ford promised to give Ontarians a government for the people. What we have seen is a government that is for the few, for the rich. There are always winners and losers in the budget process, but there is a consistency in Conservative budgets with who the losers are; the vulnerable, the poor, the marginalized people who cannot afford lobbyists, media campaigns, and organize protests for themselves. These groups are always convenient low hanging fruit for a government looking for “efficiencies”.
Like my Grandmother used to say, “When you elect a clown, expect a circus.”. Well Ontario, welcome to your one ring circus as the other two rings have been cut in the name of streamlining processes.