With an election campaign expected to start in about a month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is promising billions in additional spending on health care and new programs she says will make life more affordable.
With Ms. Wynne’s Liberals facing a tough re-election fight after nearly 15 years in power, the Premier used a Throne Speech on Monday to promise new spending to reduce hospital waits, make child care more affordable, give increased access to pharmacare and cheap tuition, and create a new dental-care program. The speech did not explain how the Liberals plan to pay for the new spending.
Ms. Wynne told The Globe and Mail her party is better suited to guide Ontario through an uncertain time than the Progressive Conservative opposition led by former Toronto councilor Doug Ford, and that her program will make significant changes to the status quo.
“There’s a lot of churn right now and in my mind I go back to the ’60s when there was a lot of churn. … We’re at another point of fundamental change and that’s what we’re offering,” she said on Monday at Queen’s Park.
Mr. Ford dismissed the spending promises as a re-election ploy. “Today, the premier wrote a lot of cheques,” he said in a statement. “Having looked at the finances, I can tell the people of Ontario that these cheques are going to bounce.”
While the Speech from the Throne, read by Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, offered few specific details for the government’s new budget, the last before the June election, Ms. Wynne said her Tory opponents are too focused on tax cuts. She promised the budget will focus spending on areas where Ontarians who face mounting expenses have asked for help.
“We’ve got the Conservatives saying we don’t need to change much, we just need to change the party in power and cut taxes and everything will be okay. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. My perspective is that we need to tackle the challenge and put big changes in place,” she said.
After returning the province to a balanced budget this year, the new spending would plunge Ontario back into deficit at a time when the economy is running at full steam and unemployment is at its lowest level in over a decade. The deficit will be up to $8-billion, according to the province’s Finance Minister.
Lisa Macleod, the PC Party’s finance critic, said the Throne Speech was a way for the Liberals to get attention after a rocky few months for the Tory opposition, including the resignation of their former leader and Mr. Ford’s election to the leadership. “They’re just trying to distract that we’ve got serious momentum in the Official Opposition,” she said.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said her party will oppose the Throne Speech and the budget. Earlier in the day, Ms. Horwath unveiled details of her party’s promise to spend $1.2-billion to provide dental coverage for 4.5-million people if the NDP forms the next government. The plan would eventually extend publicly funded dental care to all workers without benefits. While the Wynne government has said it will unveil a plan to provide more dental coverage, it will not have Ms. Horwath’s support.
“The people of Ontario have lost confidence in this government. We have as well. … It’s a government long past its due date and we’re running for hope,” she said.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa said it was important for Ontario to signal its intent to continue “nation-building,” as it did when it pushed for an improvement to the Canada Pension Plan early in Ms. Wynne’s term. The Ontario Liberals were heading down the path to their own provincial pension plan until they were able to persuade the federal government to make national changes that mirrored Ontario’s move.
Ms. Wynne’s long-time health minister, Eric Hoskins, recently resigned to take a job with the federal government to design a national pharmacare plan. The Premier said her budget will include a blueprint to expand Ontario’s pharmacare program, known as OHIP-plus, which currently covers people up to the age of 25.
She said she will move forward without the federal government for now. “We can’t wait for that. We have to look at what more we can do as a province,” she said.