Tim Hudak’s pledge to cut 100,000 jobs from Ontario’s provincial payrolls feels like a superb piece of electoral rhetoric. It scores less well as a policy. It’s a big, round number, and it may be a useful tool in the current political campaign. But a closer look at the evidence suggests that following through on the pledge would invite more pain and chaos than necessary.
Let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math on the jobs to which the Progressive Conservative Leader could realistically apply his knife.
About 1,331,000 Ontarians are employed in the public sector, according to Statistics Canada. But nearly half of those are jobs with another level of government: about 224,000 work for the federal government, 275,000 are employed by local governments, and 56,000 more work in enterprises owned by local governments. Those are out of bounds. And in making his job-cut pledge, Mr. Hudak said that doctors, nurses and police would all be spared. Based on the latest data on the province’s total number of doctors, nurses and Ontario Provincial Police officers, that’s another 128,000 jobs that would be excluded from the cuts.
What’s left? Just shy of 650,000 provincial public-sector employees. For this pool, Mr. Hudak would be looking to cut almost one in six jobs, or more than 15 per cent of this work force. And he says he’ll do it in just two years.
Where do most of those 650,000 people work? About two-thirds work in education. The province’s public school boards employ 266,000 people; about half of them are teachers. The province’s universities, colleges and trade schools employ another 140,000. Most of the remainder work in health and social services. There are more than 110,000 of them, even after subtracting cut-exempt doctors and nurses.
In other words, unless Mr. Hudak has a plan up his sleeve to dramatically reduce or privatize other, smaller parts of the public sector, the bulk of the 100,000 jobs cuts will have to fall in education, health and social services. That’s where most of the jobs are. And the reductions will have to be implemented in just two years.
Compare this with former Conservative premier Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution of the mid-1990s. Back then, just like today, federal, local and provincial governments were all pulling back. In his first two full years in office, when the bulk of Ontario’s cuts were made, the Harris government cut provincial payrolls by 44,000 jobs. Mr. Hudak is talking about cutting more than twice as many jobs as Mr. Harris. This will have an impact, and not just on those whose jobs will be eliminated.
With a dramatic plan and a big number, Mr. Hudak is offering a slogan around which to draw clear battle lines for voters. It will have political appeal to the Conservative base. It may have appeal beyond: Who wouldn’t want government to be less costly, particularly if it could somehow be done without an impact on services? It may even be a strategy to push left-leaning forces into the camp of the pro-labour New Democrats, and away from the Liberals. Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals see their biggest opportunity in capturing soft NDP support; Mr. Hudak may be happy to galvanize the unions if it shores up the third party. The politics are complex.
But leave the politics aside for a moment. As part of a policy designed to bring Ontario’s budget back into balance and rekindle an economy, it looks ill-considered and excessive. There is a long-term need to reduce and eliminate the province’s budget deficit. But it’s important to put that objective into context. At current deficit levels, the province’s debt-GDP ratio is barely rising. The patient has a condition, but he’s far from being in intensive care. There’s also a widespread perception that recent Ontario governments have been on a spending binge, but when the size of government is measured as a percentage of the economy, Ontario remains one of the lowest-spending provincial governments. Ontario also already has relatively lower public-sector employment than any other province, save for Alberta and British Columbia.
Reducing the size of the provincial government, and figuring out how to move some government functions into the private sector, is exactly what a conservative party is expected to campaign on. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In many areas, such as getting the government out of businesses it shouldn’t be in, it makes an enormous amount of sense. Take the Liberal record on the electricity file, which has dramatically pushed up electricity rates in the name of green-energy illusions and failed industrial strategy. The Conservatives are right to criticize it; even the Liberals are trying to figure out how to dismantle their creation. The Conservatives are also right to be campaining businesses subsidies and replacing them with lower taxes across the board.
But a promise to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs in two years? It’s radical and rash.