Ontario Budget 2016: More Liberal smoke and mirrors

By Gerard Di Trolio

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Queen’s Park, Toronto. Photo: Alex Guibord/flickr

The early bird budget released by the Ontario Liberals is a masterful work at political triangulation covering for austerity once you cut through the smoke and mirrors of what they are calling their progressive policies.

The Liberals managed to get a lot of positive media attention with their announcement that university and college would be tuition free for those from families who earn under $50,000 per year. The devil is of course in the details, and given the Liberal’s awful record on post secondary education many aren’t confident that this promise will be delivered.

This whole tuition drama is classic Liberal triangulation. The idea of free higher education is getting a lot of attention thanks to the Bernie Sanders campaign. The Liberals take a classic social democratic plank of free higher education, make it means tested with all sorts of caveats involved but can still claim having done something progressive.

There’s a tendency for both liberals and conservatives to claim that completing higher education is a path to upward social mobility. This simply isn’t the case, especially in an economy where there are high levels of income inequality and a slack labour market. While higher education should absolutely be free, universal, and a human right, much more needs to be done to tackle economic inequality. Unfortunately, the Ontario budget fails to address this and promises more austerity.

Increased spending on health and education in the new budget continues to be below inflation and population growth. That could easily mean more layoffs in an already strained public sector that sees Ontario last in per capita spending by province on social programs and services.

And while the province is touting that its new cap-and-trade system will bring in $1.9 billion to provincial coffers, this and small increases to tobacco and alcohol taxes, and the closing of some boutique tax credits are simply not enough in new revenue. As the CCPA Ontario’s Sheila Block states: “the lion’s share of this government’s deficit reduction activities has come at the expense of expanding program spending to improve public services.”

Going forward, it’s important to also keep in mind that the cap-and-trade system is a neoliberal response to climate change through the creation of markets for the trading on carbon credits. It has some serious limitations. Ontario very well could find itself trying to fix some serious problems in the system down the road, further delaying what is really needed to deal with climate change.

The provincial government is continuing to tout its infrastructure spending plan, but this has come at the cost of the selling of provincial assets like Hydro One, and these projects will be built using public-private-partnerships (P3s) which have been shown to be wildly inefficient by increasing costs and acting as a cash cow for corporations.

There has also been pressing issues completely ignored. While childcare received some attention in October’s federal election, there is not a single mention of it in the Ontario budget. Ontario’s patchwork childcare system continues to be a huge financial drain on working and middle class households. For the “Social Justice Premier” expanding affordable access to affordable childcare is not only an issue of gender equality, but an economic no-brainer too.

Ontario has been left with another austerity budget with some policies and new spending that do not hold up to close scrutiny. This comes at a time when precarious work continues to increase in the province. It will be up to movements of working people – for better scheduling, an end to on-call shifts, and most importantly the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage to force the government to address the deepening inequality and declining public services in the province. It’s more than clear the Liberals are not going to do it without some serious pressure.

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