For a guy who came to power in 2018 on a promise to rein in the size and cost of government, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is heading into his 2022 election campaign with a completely different pitch.
That pitch can be seen in the Ontario budget tabled Thursday by Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, a budget that he described as “Premier Ford’s vision.”
That “vision” is in reality less a provincial budget than it is a Progressive Conservative election platform. In case there’s any doubt, Bethlenfalvy recited the PC campaign slogan “Get it done” no less than 10 times during his budget speech.
Also, minutes after the speech wrapped, the legislature was adjourned until well after the June 2 election, so the budget won’t pass unless the PCs win a majority.
Beyond the sloganeering, the budget’s tone and messaging appear crafted to assure Ontario voters that Ford and the PCs are not just willing to spend the money that’s needed on crucial government services, but actually eager to spend it, to the extent of actually forecasting a deficit higher than in each of the past two pandemic years.
It also appears to be an attempt to persuade voters that Ford has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic and that cutting government spending is no longer a big concern for the PCs.
In 2018, the dominant theme of Ford’s campaign was that the government simply spent too much. A few Fordisms from then:
- “The party with the taxpayer’s money is over.”
- “People are sick and tired of tax tax tax, spend spend spend.”
- “We’re going to put money back into the taxpayer’s pocket instead of the government’s pocket.”
Ford’s dominant theme for 2022 appears to be that government spending is just what Ontario needs.
“Over the next three years, our plan will see spending increase by an average of five per cent per year, with important investments in health care, in education and critical infrastructure,” Bethlenfalvy proclaimed in his speech.
During a news conference at Queen’s Park on Thursday, I asked the finance minister about this contrast, and whether his party was wrong to campaign so hard in 2018 on the idea that government was spending too much.
“Clearly, the pandemic has exposed some of the lack of investment by — I’m going to be very blunt — by the Liberals, supported by the NDP,” said Bethlenfalvy.
“We’re being, I think, very prudent to invest in health care and education and critical infrastructure,” Bethlenfalvy continued. “That’s what the people of Ontario want.”
It’s one thing the main parties will all agree on, that the people of Ontario want investments in health care and education and long-term care and transit. Polling has told them that.
Now the parties need to persuade Ontario voters that they’re the best one to deliver.
The NDP and Liberals will try to sow seeds of doubt that the PCs will truly spend what’s needed.
“Doug Ford’s going to go right back to cutting the minute this election is over, if we give him the chance,” said Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath during a news conference Thursday.
According to the NDP’s number crunching, the budget proposes spending $2.7 billion less than what inflation would warrant over the next three years.
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca’s take is that Ford’s vision isn’t bold enough.
“The lack of ambition for Ontario is breathtaking,” Del Duca said. “Not a single new idea to improve our schools, or provide better care for our seniors.”
Yet after 15 years in power in Ontario, the Liberals will need to overcome the perception that they were the ones responsible for leaving the health-care and long-term care systems teetering on the brink, with hospitals chronically overcrowded and nursing home waiting lists chronically lengthy, so that when the pandemic hit, they couldn’t cope.
“They had 15 years to get these things done,” said Bethlenfalvy. “How many long-term care beds did they build? How many new hospitals did they build? How many subways did they get built?”
The desire to show themselves as builders is why Ford and his ministers spent the last two months in pre-campaign mode making near-daily announcements about every future hospital and long-term care project the government has in the planning pipeline, no matter how long it’ll be before construction actually starts.
It’s why Ford re-announced his transportation plans for the Greater Toronto Area, stuck a ceremonial shovel in the ground for the city’s Ontario Line subway and flicked the ceremonial switch to start tunnelling on its Eglinton West extension of the not-yet-operating Crosstown LRT, all in the past few weeks.
It’s all designed to send the message of momentum, of building what Ontario needs to come out of the pandemic.
What might get lost amid the whirlwind of the campaign is the fact that the Ford government’s budget for such projects over the next 10 years ($159 billion) is actually less than the 10-year plan the Liberals laid out back in 2018 ($182 billion).