Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is pledging to slash 100,000 jobs from Ontario's public sector in an audacious plan to bring the budget to balance in two years and define the June 12 election campaign on his terms.
The promise, made Friday at a Barrie country club, strikes a stark contrast between his laissez-faire agenda and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne's interventionist ideology in the high-stakes battle for the economic future of the nation's most populous province. It also ratchets up his fight with organized labour, particularly the powerful teachers' unions, whose jobs are among those he singled out.
"It's not easy, I take no joy in this, but it has to be done if we want job creators to put more people on the payroll in our province," said Mr. Hudak, who contends the best way to attract businesses is to erase red ink.
The layoffs would affect everyone from education workers to IT staff to health and energy bureaucrats. Some agencies – including the Ontario Power Authority – would be abolished entirely, while other services, including running the GO bus network, would be contracted out. Mr. Hudak said he would not lay off doctors, nurses or police officers. But nearly everyone else could face the axe.
"Will it mean fewer teachers? It does," Mr. Hudak said. "We'll hire more nurses, we'll keep our police officers, but it will mean fewer teachers in our system."
The move immediately dominated the narrative of the campaign, which is fast becoming a microcosm of the broader clash between left and right as the world looks to navigate out of the ongoing post-recession economic doldrums.
The Tories are banking their best shot at victory is motivating their supporters by giving them something meaty to vote for. The Liberals, likewise, want to turn the vote into a referendum on Mr. Hudak's agenda. Leader Kathleen Wynne quickly pounced.
"That's 100,000 people no longer able to earn a living, no longer paying taxes and buying goods. It's 100,000 families who would lose a breadwinner," she said during a tour of a medical supply company in Trenton. "Let me spell this out for Mr. Hudak because he is obviously struggling with this notion: You don't create jobs by cutting jobs."
Ms. Wynne is running on a platform of stimulating the economy through spending on infrastructure and social services.
Campaigning in Windsor, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath raised the spectre of the Common Sense Revolution, when the PC government in the 1990s battled public-sector unions while making deep cuts.
"These are the same things that [Mr. Hudak] was pushing when he sat around the cabinet table with Mike Harris," she said. "They are things that don't work for Ontario."
A Globe and Mail analysis of Statistics Canada data shows Mr. Hudak's plan, if implemented, would reduce the public sector by about 9 per cent, putting it back to its size in 2006. Since 2000, the public sector has grown more than twice as fast as the provincial population.
Some economists argued the cuts, while they might bring down the deficit in the short term, would lead to greater pressure on social services and less money in the province's pocket from taxes.
"Of course it will have a huge negative impact," said Harald Bathelt, of the University of Toronto.
Added Carleton University's Justin Paulson: "It's the kind of move that saves the province a dollar here and there this year, while costing far more in the long run."
The Tories contend they will offset the consequences of cuts by reducing taxes, leaving more money with consumers and businesses. Some jobs shed by the public sector will be directly replaced by private companies through contracting out, they said.
With reports from Stuart A. Thompson and the Canadian Press