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Politics Ontario budget didn’t give the federal Liberals the political gift they were hoping for

Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals were waiting, in anticipation, for Doug Ford’s budget to hack and slash everything. But they didn’t get the political gift they were waiting for.

Instead, the new Ontario budget was middling, vague and wrapped in tailgates and licence plates. The Liberals were left to argue that the ugly cuts are going to come later, six months or a year down the road, after the federal election.

The federal Liberals, you see, were expecting that Mr. Ford’s provincial budget was going to provide a picture-book illustration of cuts to the services that ordinary folks care about. They would then use that to illustrate their message about the federal Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer – that harsh cuts are what conservatives are all about, and that Mr. Scheer’s Tories would do as Mr. Ford ‘s Ontario Progressive Conservatives did.

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Mr. Ford’s Tories had, after all, already made some politically ham-fisted cuts, messing with programs for autistic children, cutting a francophone services commissioner and announcing increases in high-school class sizes (arguing it would make kids more resilient). Mr. Ford promised to balance the budget in his first term, so many thought they’d get the cutting done in their first budget, when a provincial election was three years away.

Instead, Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives dumped the balanced-budget pledge. Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli now says they won’t balance the budget until 2024. That’s only one year before the forecast set out last year under Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne – the premier that Mr. Ford had cast as a profligate money-waster. On the evidence of Thursday’s budget, Mr. Ford’s Tories are more populist than fiscally conservative.

There are cuts. Indigenous services and the Environment Ministry will be cut. Presumably Mr. Ford and Mr. Fedeli think their voters won’t mind that. The biggest provincial spending items, health and education, will be constrained to slight shrinkage in after-inflation terms. Universities will get less money this year. Children’s-services budgets will be cut, but it’s not clear precisely how.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan argued that Mr. Ford’s budget was carefully crafted so that it’s hard to immediately identify what services will be cut.

“For six months, it’s going to feel like there’s no cuts. And then all of a sudden, the bottom is going to drop out,” he said in a telephone interview.

Why delay the impact? “I think they’re running cover for the Conservatives up in Ottawa,” Mr. Vaughan said.

He argued that Mr. Ford’s PCs were out to protect the Tory brand to help Mr. Scheer get elected in October. Both really want to “cut, cut, cut,” but don’t want people to realize it yet, he said.

Take those arguments any way you like, but for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa, it amounts to an admission that the Ontario budget didn’t give them the easy-to-caricature picture they expected.

They wanted, figuratively speaking, to campaign by showing voters a picture of Mr. Scheer standing next to an axe-wielding Mr. Ford. Now, they’re complaining that Mr. Ford is hiding the axe behind his back.

That robs Mr. Trudeau’s team of the weapon they expected. Some of Mr. Ford’s people are already gloating about that.

Certainly, Mr. Vaughan is right that the details of cuts have an impact that figures don’t. People feel more strongly about a hospital closing than a billion-dollar cut to a budget line.

The Ontario budget included some details that will open the PCs to political criticism – but more were shiny-penny novelties, such as new blue licence plates.

Many were populist moves Mr. Ford might paint with his “For the People” slogan – child-care credits (for the people with kids), a hastily planned and probably semi-fictional map of a new subway line (for the people who commute in Toronto) and legalized tailgating (for the people who party). Some came out of the blue, such as letting bars sell booze at 9 a.m. (for the people with a problem).

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But for the time being, at least, Mr. Ford’s budget hasn’t shown Ontarians a harsh, austere face. Mr. Trudeau’s team had hoped that’s what Canadian voters would see, and that they’d worry that the same face is behind Mr. Scheer’s smile. Now they’ll have to fight Mr. Scheer without Mr. Ford’s help.

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