Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives have put the public service on a hiring freeze and are halting all discretionary government spending until after the party takes office and can audit the province’s books.
Ministries across Canada’s largest provincial government were told to immediately limit spending, including curtailing public events and stopping unnecessary travel, less than two weeks before premier-designate Doug Ford and his cabinet take office.
Most of the spending limits, including a freeze on hiring by the public service, will remain in place until after Mr. Ford delivers on a campaign promise to complete an exhaustive, line-by-line audit of the Ontario government, according to a Tory spokesman.
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“We issued a directive to government ministries to implement a hiring freeze, cancel all subscription-based services, and a restriction on out of province travel until we can get a true look at the state of Ontario’s finances,” Simon Jefferies said in a statement.
Mr. Ford said during the election campaign that he would find $6-billion in efficiencies in government spending, and would do so without cutting any public service jobs. However, he never explained where he would find those savings. In the final days before Ontarians voted, he pledged to hire new nurses and teachers.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, cautioned that the hiring freeze would lead to growing delays for government services and longer lineups in the coming months as vacant positions are unfilled and retired workers are not replaced. He said he doesn’t expect Mr. Ford’s audit, which hasn’t started yet, to be finished for a number of months.
“We look after you from birth to death and everything in between,” Mr. Thomas said of his 34,000 members in the public sector. “Everything you can imagine that affects your life is included in this freeze. I hope it doesn’t go on forever.”
Essential front-line services, which include correctional workers, along with police and firefighters employed by the provincial government, will be exempt from the hiring freeze. There will be a few other exemptions to the edict, including new employees to fulfill collective agreements, as well as lateral moves and hires from inside the ranks of the more than 60,000 members of the public service.
Most of the province’s teachers and doctors will not be affected directly by the move, because they’re not members of the public service.
“The freeze disproportionately affects front-line services. There are just so many more of those jobs. If you don’t fill a front-line job, whether it’s at Service Ontario or another government agency, people are going to be waiting a lot longer for service. Not filling a job is the same as a cut,” Mr. Thomas said.
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The outgoing Liberals, who were in office for nearly 15 years, had implemented some limited hiring freezes as they wrestled down the province’s deficit.
Monday’s directive to ministries to halt spending was made by Steve Orsini, the head of Ontario’s public service. “Until the new government can put in place an expenditure management strategy, we will implement additional expenditure restrictions,” his note said. “Wherever legally possible, ministries should immediately take steps to freeze any new discretionary spending until further notice.”
Along with the hiring limits, a number of new restrictions have been placed on spending. Ministries have been told to immediately halt all expenditures that are not necessary for public safety – which includes requests for proposals on future projects, outside consulting services and contractors, travel, events and communications with the public. Work already under way should be slowed or put on a temporary hold if possible, the directive says.
No food or beverages can be purchased for any staff meetings or events. The government will also no longer buy any alcohol for outside events, including diplomatic meetings. Trade missions outside of Canada will be strictly limited.
Ministries were also told that all media subscriptions need to be cancelled immediately, including newspapers, magazines, trade journals and other publications both in print and online. The cabinet office at the legislature will retain some subscriptions and will provide ministries with articles when requested.