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Report on Business Despite Doug Ford’s vow to get Ontario’s books in order, this isn’t a Mike Harris budget

A single theme dominated Ontario’s election campaign one year ago: The public wanted change. The province’s debt load had exploded and the ruling Liberals were seen as the party that could not stop spending.

To get elected, Premier Doug Ford promised he would get the books in order. Since taking power, he and Finance Minister Vic Fedeli have talked constantly about the province’s debt burden, now sitting at 40.2 per cent of gross domestic product, and they have raged about “the fiscal mess we inherited.”

So the expectation ahead of Ontario’s budget this week was that this was going to be the second coming of former premier Mike Harris, who swept into power in 1995 on the back of a platform known as the Common Sense Revolution.

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Ford government’s first budget cuts deficit to $11.7-billion, Ontario books won’t be balanced for five years

The parallels were all too striking. Premiers Ford and Harris booted progressive leaders – Bob Rae in 1995 and Kathleen Wynne in 2018 – and the Progressive Conservative parties they led pitched themselves as fiscal saviours who would restore order.

The reality: The budget Mr. Ford has tabled barely resembles Mr. Harris’s revolution. If anything, it looks more like something that would come from the Liberals he replaced – the ones he swore had been reckless with the province’s finances.

In Mr. Ford’s first budget, the Progressive Conservatives are planning to slightly boost debt to 40.7 per cent of GDP this year and then hold it around that level for two more years. The “recovery plan” they are touting doesn’t lower this debt metric back to 2017 levels until 2023.

Ontario’s program spending is also going to continue rising by an average of 1 per cent a year over the next five years. That’s lower than the current inflation rate, which is promising, but it reflects a strategy the Liberals adopted for a number of years.

Before they started eyeing re-election, the Liberals went to war with doctors, making unilateral cuts to the fees that physicians charge and freezing hospital budgets. They also targeted education spending, freezing teacher wages or offering minimal raises. Both ministries are crucial to the budget, because they collectively comprise about 60 per cent of program spending.

Mr. Harris, meanwhile, laid down the gauntlet in 1995. “I'm not talking about tinkering, about incremental changes, or about short-term solutions,” he wrote in his campaign’s platform. “It is time for fundamental change, and change is never easy.”

Once in power, he came out swinging. Total spending was slashed for multiple years; provincial income taxes were slashed by 30 per cent; and billions of dollars of costs were downloaded to municipalities.

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He was ruthless. In his first month in power, Mr. Harris scrapped a project to build a midtown Toronto subway along Eglinton Avenue that was already under construction – and then filled it in with sand.

This week, Mr. Ford promised to invest in subways, and even touted a brand new “Ontario Line” that will snake through downtown Toronto. Capital expenditures such as these are a key reason why the province’s debt will continue to grow.

Maybe the Ontario government has learned something from its neighbour. When the Quebec Liberals took office in 2014, former premier Philippe Couillard was handed a net debt that had ballooned to more than 50 per cent of GDP. The government slashed and slashed, and within three years Quebec posted a $2.5-billion surplus. Mr. Couillard’s reward for that? He was booted from office last fall.

But because Mr. Ford’s campaign promises sounded so much like the Common Sense Revolution, he can’t veer too far from it. For the moment, it seems he’s at least hoping to cloak his party in the branding.

Beyond promising fiscal accountability, he is mirroring Mr. Harris’s divisive mentality. In the 1990s, the Progressive Conservatives pitted urban elites against suburbanites and rural voters; today, Mr. Ford is putting his own spin on this sentiment by pitching his budget as being for “the little guy.” And as with Mr. Harris, he is trimming funding for the vulnerable, including cuts to children’s and social services.

Yet, Mr. Ford should remember that Mr. Harris was re-elected in 1999 with another majority government because he delivered on his fiscal plan. There were protests galore when Mr. Harris slashed, and there was even a brutal teachers’ strike, but voters still rewarded him for delivering on his fiscal promises.

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If Mr. Ford sticks to his budget, Ontario will still be running deficits when he runs for re-election, making him look a lot like the Liberals he railed against.

Ontario's Progressive Conservative government has tabled its plan to gradually balance the budget over five years. The NDP Opposition says cuts in the budget to social services will affect children and communities. The Canadian Press
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