On Tuesday, Ontario got its first glimpse of the province’s economic future from Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s 2012 budget, but it’s a vision that the Conservative Party and Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris cannot support.
“My first reaction was that I was obviously disappointed with this budget,” said Harris on Wednesday afternoon over the phone from his office at the Legislature, indicating that the province continues to struggle to get its economic house in order and help get 600,000 unemployed Ontarians back to work.
“(There is) no real plan to address the massive deficit that we’re faced with to reduce the overall size and cost to government, and the jobs crisis.”
Ontario’s total spending is pegged at $127 billion this year (with an extra $1 billion in reserves), an increase of 2.5 per cent over last year, with the promise of eliminating the deficit in the next five years without sacrificing education or healthcare.
In the budget delivered on Tuesday afternoon, the Liberal government forecast a deficit of $15.3 billion for the coming year, which is about $1 billion less than was forecast a year ago, but still too high for Harris and the Tories to stomach.
“Families have to live within their means and consider family budgets when making big decisions, and so should this government as well,” he said, pointing out the fact that 14 of 24 ministries will see a budget increase year-over-year, representing 82 per cent of the overall budget.
“That’s not austerity. That’s not reducing the size and cost of government. That’s making it bigger.”
The Liberals have also “cherry picked” from the Drummond Report released last month, Harris said, picking and choosing which suggestions to adopt and which ones to ignore.
In total, the province has outright rejected nine of the 362 suggestions, including recommendations to scrap all-day kindergarten and to cut Ontario’s 10 per cent price break on electricity bills for those using less than 3,000 kwh per month.
Duncan said that he didn’t agree that all of former TD bank chief economist Don Drummond’s recommendations needed to be followed in order to balance the provincial books by 2017-2018 – an assessment that Harris disagrees with.
“We paid an astronomical amount of money to have him put this big report together and the government ignores it,” Harris said.
“If you’re going to pull off and backtrack on these recommendations, you need to put something back on the table that would make up for that cost.”
Trying to work within a minority government, there are hints of the Liberals trying to appease both parties in this budget – for example a public-sector wage freeze for the Tories, and a refusal to drop the corporate tax rate to 10 per cent from its current rate of 11.5 per cent until the budget is balanced for the NDP – but the Conservatives say that they simply cannot accept the current budget as it stands today.
The government plan calls for per capita spending in 2011-2012 to be $8,560, the lowest among the provinces, and the government says that $17.7 billion in savings and cost containment will be realized over the next three years. Yet with money-wasting boondoggles like eHealth and ORNGE still fresh in Ontarians’ minds, Harris said that most people will find it hard to make sacrifices in their own lives when the government is unwilling to do the same. With the Conservatives refusal to pass the budget, should the NDP also refuse to pass it – a decision they’ll likely come to in the next week or so – Ontarians could be headed back to the polls, something that is undesirable but may be necessary, Harris said.
“We don’t want an election – that’s the last thing Ontarians want and the last thing the people in my riding want, and I don’t want an election – but they also don’t want a $30-billion deficit,” said Harris.
“Enough is enough. The only way we can stop this bleeding and stop this government from spending is by getting rid of them.”