Ontario is accusing Ottawa of “abdicating its responsibility” on everything from health care to infrastructure and leaving the provinces to pick up the slack.
Premier Kathleen Wynne launched a blistering attack on the federal government the day after its budget, arguing Ottawa has forced her government to choose between shouldering an ever-greater fiscal burden or allowing programs to die.
“We’re seeing a pattern of the federal government getting out of … the business of nation building,” she said in Toronto. “These cuts and changes are of varying magnitude. Some are much larger than others. But they’re part of that pattern of federal government moving away, as I say, from its role as nation-builder, abdicating its responsibility to the people of the province.”
Ms. Wynne’s government had civil servants prepare a list of 116 decisions the federal government has made since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006 that resulted in either a program cut or a greater expense to Ontario.
Among other things, the province is angry Ottawa did not renew funding to reduce health-care waiting times and hire more police officers.
Ontario is also worried by signals the federal government might go it alone on the Canada Job Grant if it cannot reach a deal with the provinces by April 1. The grant would be partly paid for by taking federal money out of an existing fund for provincial job-training programs. The provinces argue they need this money to help train the most vulnerable workers, including people with disabilities.
“I hope that we’re going to be able to have a situation where the fed government understands the kind of flexibility that the provinces need. If not, then that’s going to be again another problem where we are going to have to decide if we step into a gap that has been left by the federal government,” Ms. Wynne said. “[April 1] is a deadline that is a bit difficult, it’s true. We will try to have a conclusion and I hope we can find a solution, but yes, it is a time frame that is a bit short.”
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty held firm in his insistence that Ottawa must act to get better results for job training. He stressed that money related to job training is ultimately money collected through federal taxes.
“It is federal tax money and it’s not for a provincial government to tell the federal government how to spend federal tax money,” he said. “The issue we have is we have a lot of young people who do not have jobs and they need training and they need training for the jobs that are available … We give billions – not millions – billions of dollars to the provinces to accomplish this goal of matching the person with the job. Some of them don’t even report to us. We don’t even know what they do with the money, so we’re going to do better than that. We’re going to have results.”
The minister took a shot at Quebec, which has also condemned Tuesday’s budget.
“Well, I’m a finance minister of a government that’s solvent,” he said.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, meanwhile, dismissed Ontario’s anti-Ottawa rhetoric as “panicky pre-election hyperbole” and “misinformation.”
“Fed-bashing is an honoured tradition, especially before elections,” said Mr. Oliver to about 50 people at a Toronto Regional Board of Trade meeting in Toronto, referring to a likely snap vote in Ontario this spring. “I don’t think there’s legitimate cause for the province to complain.”
“The facts are last year the federal government transferred $19.2-billion to the government of Ontario and this amount is 26 per cent higher than the highest amount transferred during the previous federal Liberal government.”
Ms. Wynne’s government has been battling with Ottawa on several fronts in recent months. The federal government late last year refused Ontario’s demand to enhance the Canada Pension Plan and has so far not committed as much infrastructure money to develop the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario as the province wants.
Ottawa also eliminated a program called Total Transfer Protection, which has ensured since 2010 that no province would receive less in federal transfer payments than it did the year before. As a result, Ontario will take in $641-million less next year than it did this year.
“Unilateral decisions by the federal government impact our ability to provide services,” Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said Wednesday. “We are already the leanest government in Canada.”
Ontario’s opposition parties, however, urged Ms. Wynne to get her own house in order rather than dumping on Ottawa.
“For the past year, Premier Kathleen Wynne has refused to put forward a plan to create new jobs with better pay and is now trying to start phony wars with the Federal government to distract from her awful record,” Progressive Conservative Finance Critic Vic Fedeli said in a statement. “It is time for the Liberals to stop blaming the federal government for their wrongdoings. It wasn’t the federal government that wasted $1.1-billion on two cancelled gas plants.”
The New Democrats, meanwhile, said slagging the federal government was a bad strategy.
“If you’re trying to negotiate with your neighbour to borrow their lawnmower, would you hurl insults over the fence? Of course not. You find a way to have a discussion,” NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said.
With a report from Bruce Laregina in Toronto