For a limited time only, everything is on the table.
Bigger class sizes! Fewer hospitals! Means testing for seniors’ drug benefits! Fights with doctors over their job descriptions, and with teachers over their pensions, and with professors over how much time they spend teaching! An end to tuition relief, and (even) higher energy bills, and a phase-out of tax credits for businesses!
These are only the flashiest of the recommendations in the report delivered on Wednesday by economist Don Drummond, nearly a year after he was commissioned to study the future of Ontario’s public services, and to dwell on them too much distracts from the subtler and less contentious ones. But they highlight what a remarkable period Canada’s largest province is entering, as its deficit-plagued government and its population struggle to come to terms with new economic and fiscal realities.
Of Mr. Drummond’s 362 recommendations, precisely one - the cancellation of full-day kindergarten - has been ruled out by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals. For the next six weeks, leading up to the most important budget they will have delivered in their eight-plus years in power, they will do their best to avoid coming down definitively on many more.
And so the 543-page report - copies of which were placed on a table at the start of Wednesday’s media lockup, only for the table to promptly give way - will serve as one very heavy trial balloon.
The value of Mr. Drummond’s work is not in its novel ideas; there are a few, but the truth is that most have been kicking around public-policy circles for ages. Nor is it in explaining how to actually implement major reforms, which is unfortunate since the Liberals could really use some help on that front. Rather, it is in laying it all on the table in a way that government never could.
Most members of the general public won’t have the time to sift through the entire report. (Even some government officials admitted, before its release, that they couldn’t make it through the whole thing.) But in seeing which recommendations get traction and which cause an outcry and which don’t generate much reaction at all, Mr. McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will be able to get a better sense of what’s palatable and what’s politically toxic.
The media, and various sectors that would be affected by reforms, will play a big role in that. And so too, given that the province is in the early stages of a minority legislature, will the two opposition parties.
Last fall’s provincial election did nothing - less than nothing, really - to encourage understanding and public discussion about the difficult choices ahead. But much as it may be less than ideal, there is at least a chance now to have the debate that was missing then.
On Wednesday, the signs on that front were not entirely encouraging. Andrea Horwath, the third-party NDP Leader, was at least able to counter some of Mr. Drummond’s recommendations by renewing her call for a cancellation of corporate tax cuts - a measure that will allow the province to dodge some of the more draconian cost-saving measures, and one that the Liberals seem increasingly inclined toward. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, on the other hand, was all over the map - at once calling on the Liberals not to cherry-pick from the report, and rejecting recommendations that he himself doesn’t find palatable.
In fairness, unlike the government, the opposition parties had had only a few hours to skim Mr. Drummond’s work. With more time - and with the striking of a Finance committee, which should finally happen when the Legislature resumes next week - they should be able to engage more seriously.
At least, that’s the hope. Because if the entire exercise turns into a circus, it will further jeopardize the tenuous premise on which Mr. Drummond’s recommendations are based.
Despite its extremely grim diagnosis, including warnings that Ontario is currently on pace for a $30-billion deficit and a debt-to-GDP ratio above 50 per cent, the report is underpinned by a counterintuitive optimism. Significantly cutting the amount of money the government spends in real terms on each Ontarian, it argues, won’t be that painful if Queen's Park is able to change in ways it’s never been able to change before. And that means not just by cutting things, but more importantly by adopting evidence-based decision-making and by better integrating its services and by making the broader public sector more of a meritocracy.
These things are all much harder than they sound, because they involve rolling over vested interests. They may well prove beyond the capacity of the current government. But there are a few weeks for the rest of us to consider what they mean, and to seriously discuss how they could be achieved.
What’s on the table, for now, isn’t even half of what'll be on it a few years from now, if Mr. Drummond’s faith in the ability of the government and the province to transform themselves proves unmerited.