A post going around social media asks those who are bellyaching about Premier Doug Ford’s recent spending cuts where the heck they were when Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals were bankrupting the Ontario government. Except the word it uses isn’t heck.
It’s an excellent question. The answer is clear: They were nowhere. They were utterly silent as, year after year, the Liberals spent billions more than they took in and ran the province on a credit card. No, it’s worse than that. They egged them on. What the Liberals spent was never enough for them.
No matter how many times Ms. Wynne and her crew opened the public purse, they always wanted more. More for public transit, more for housing, more for hospitals, more for daycare, more for teachers. When Queen’s Park spent millions, they yearned for ten of millions; when it spent tens, they cried for hundreds.
They said not a word about how the debt that Ontario was piling up would weigh on future generations, not a syllable about how the interest on that debt was already eating into what the government could spend on urgent public needs. They stood by, hands covering their eyes, as what was once the solid citizen of Confederation built up a high-roller’s tab of nearly $350-billion.
That’s a third of the way to a trillion, for those keeping score at home. It is the second-highest debt, measured by proportion of GDP, in the whole country, trailing only Newfoundland. Even Quebec is in better shape.
Remember how bitterly Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, complained when Ms. Wynne didn’t cough up as much as he wanted for public housing in the city? Although he had denounced the floods of Liberal overspending when he was leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives in an earlier incarnation, he urged the Wynne government to open the spigot for Toronto.
He must have known, as every conscious Ontarian surely did, that there would be a reckoning one day. Now it is here. Doug Ford and his PCs ran for office on an explicit promise to rein in government spending after a generation of Liberal excess. Can anyone really be surprised that the axe is now falling? As Mr. Ford reminded Mr. Tory in a pointed letter this week, Ontario’s crushing debt “puts the delivery of essential services such as education and health care at risk − not just today, but for future generations.”
Despite all the griping, the butcher’s bill is surprisingly modest. The provincial budget that just came down actually increased overall spending. Balancing the budget has been put off till beyond the government’s term of office. There is nothing remotely like the deep cuts imposed by another PC premier, Mike Harris, in the 1990s.
Some of the Ford cuts are going to hurt, no doubt. It seems reckless to reduce transfers to cities for public health at a time when so many of them are struggling with a deadly plague of drug overdoses. It seems short-sighted to cut funding for tree planting when so many alarms are ringing about the dangers of climate change. The cuts are falling on some of the very things that Mr. Ford’s critics hold dearest.
But the axe was always going to fall somewhere. By their silence, the people who are complaining now helped put the axe in Mr. Ford’s hands.
Voters were bound to get uneasy with a government that ran deficits year after year and with no thought for the future. It has happened before. Mr. Harris’s election win was a response to the NDP’s Bob Rae. Mr. Rae, too, was egged on by the deficits-don’t-matter crowd. In fact, the province’s big unions rose in outrage when he tried to trim spending back a little. In came mean old Mr. Harris.
It comes as no surprise, either, that Mr. Ford is trying to balance the books by passing some of the bills on to others. Cash-strapped governments do it all the time. Mr. Harris did it when he downloaded all sorts of responsibilities and expenses to the cities, putting places such as Toronto behind the eight ball. Paul Martin, the federal government’s finance minister in the 1990s, did it when he cut transfers to the provinces so that he could slay the budget deficit.
So it was as predictable as daybreak that there would be a reaction to the free-spending Liberal years. It was just as predictable that when the reckoning came, the people who had done the most to bring it about would be the ones to howl the loudest.