Doug Ford campaigned to become Ontario’s premier last year with a set of broad promises that, taken in combination, demanded suspension of disbelief.
Not only would he simultaneously offer billions of dollars in tax cuts and billions more in program spending, he would also do so while maneuvering the province back to balanced budgets by finding “efficiencies” that did not adversely affect public services or, even more implausibly, cost a single job.
This week, the reality that has been intruding since shortly after Mr. Ford took office came into sharp relief. Separate stories about his government’s potential plans for health care and education, which account for more than 60 per cent of Ontario’s program spending, combined to underscore how much more difficult it is to govern the country’s largest province than he has made it out to be.
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First came signals that Mr. Ford’s government is considering scrapping Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program, with Education Minister Lisa Thompson and then the Premier himself refusing to guarantee its future beyond the next school year.
The Tories could make a case for doing away with full-day kindergarten’s annual $1.5-billion price tag by drawing on some studies that suggest it lacks enough of a long-term impact on student outcomes. But the research is mixed, with other reviews finding literacy and numeracy benefits extending well into elementary school. Really, it’s hard to know how effective full-day kindergarten is, less than five years after its implementation. It would make sense to see the program through at least long enough to allow for more definitive findings.
More problematic for Mr. Ford, politically, would be the cost-of-living impact. Full-day kindergarten’s primary purpose should not be to serve as a daycare substitute. But in lieu of some other major child-care investment, eliminating it would increase annual costs by thousands of dollars for many families – which explains an immediate public outcry that casts doubt on whether the Tories will go beyond floating the possibility.
On Thursday, there emerged indications about what Mr. Ford has in store with health-care reform. A preliminary report by Rueben Devlin, the Premier’s health-care guru, called for “tough decisions” to meet Mr. Ford’s campaign promise to end “hallway medicine," and hinted at shifting away from investing in hospital beds toward other forms of care.
Hours later, the opposition NDP released a leaked copy of a draft government bill that would dissolve Ontario’s current network of local health agencies in favour of a “Super Agency” armed with the power to close or merge hospitals and other facilities.
Whereas the kindergarten change would represent a huge shift in provincial policy, what’s striking about the health-care discussion is its familiarity. It is habit for new governments in Ontario to put their stamp on the system by redrawing bureaucratic flowcharts. And the Liberals spent a great deal of time talking about shifting patients away from hospitals and toward primary, home and digital care.
Although the governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne made modest progress on that second front, they discovered – as did Mike Harris’s PCs before them – that diverting resources from any existing health-care provider will be met with resistance. Even if there is a strong financial and medical case for closing a hospital ward (let alone an entire hospital), it tends to spark anxiety in voters.
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Past governments could also attest that, while the alternate care options hinted at by Dr. Devlin could save money in the long run, they are not simple to design – and they may require new spending, at least at first. We’re a long way from Mr. Ford’s campaign pitch that a little common sense would be a cost-free cure-all.
The broader problem is that if there were easy ways to save large amounts of money by cutting things nobody would miss, previous governments would have seized on them.
The provincial Liberals had their share of waste, and in their final budget threw money at their slim re-election hopes. But despite its deficit and debt, Ontario already has the second-lowest per-capita program spending of any province, and the lowest per-capita health spending. There are no billion-dollar magic beans hiding behind the sofa.
That is Ontario’s fiscal reality. The challenge for Mr. Ford is that it bears little resemblance to the fictions he ran on.