The ONW Salon: Is Ontario’s Latest Shutdown Enough?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): Quebec has entered a strict lockdown while Ontario is being criticized as too lax, not protecting essential workers and letting hospitals teeter near capacity. Meanwhile schools in a number of areas, such as Toronto and Peel, closed to in-person learning. Is Ontario’s shutdown enough to battle the third wave of COVID-19?

Chris Loreto:

Ontario, like many other jurisdictions around the world, is in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and that is why the Ontario government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, imposed a provincewide “emergency brake” this past weekend.

The third wave is not unique to Ontario. This wave is hitting harder because variants are now accounting for a significant portion of new cases. According to the WHO, in Europe, the variant first found in Britain is spreading significantly in at least 27 European countries and is now dominant in Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

All of these jurisdictions are putting on emergency brakes — either by delaying the lifting of restrictions or re-imposing lockdown restrictions.

This latest province-wide lockdown is attempting to stop the rapid transmission of COVID-19 variants in communities, protect hospital capacity and save lives.

Is this lockdown enough? Being from Peel, I have really only known lockdown since November. It has been a long and tough road.

I do think provincial efforts are appropriate. The government has to balance fighting the third wave and the risk it poses with increasing public restlessness from over a year of reduced freedom.

Some will point to the pictures from the weekend with crowded malls as evidence that the lockdown measures are insufficient. The question we have to ask is why weren’t measures taken in these instances to manage the flow of customers in these settings? We all have to be accountable for how we are adhering to the measures despite the fatigue and frustration we are all feeling.

We all need to be responsible citizens as we fight this third wave.

Sarbjit Kaur:

The latest shutdown is too little too late.

It’s like Groundhog Day. We keep suffering under repeated lockdowns because we’re opening up too early each time or not dealing with the hot spots and real sources of outbreaks.

Now we’re in lockdown again and malls are open, some schools are open, workplaces with thousands of employees are operating.

It’s not a lockdown. What’s the point?

We’re just dragging this out and now with the variants out there, hospitals are overwhelmed and workers who’ve already been through what they may have thought was the worst of it are under tremendous pressure again.

The optimism of looking forward to spring, a smooth vaccine rollout and a return to “normal” has given way to fear, finger pointing and frustration.

Decision makers have known for some time that regions like Peel and Toronto, particularly where there are high numbers of workers who can’t work from home such as those in food processing plants, warehouse workers, factory workers, taxi and transit drivers etc., are hot spots.  Focusing on closing small businesses and gyms but keeping schools and huge congregate workplaces open was obviously not going to be effective.

It finally took Peel’s Medical Officer of Health to close down an Amazon warehouse after over 600 COVID-19 cases and they’ve shut down their schools as well.

Municipalities having to take these measures on their own due to lack of provincial action points to dysfunction and failure on the lockdown front.

Fred Hahn:

This is actually the first wave of the variants of COVID-19.

We need to shift our plans and pivot to save lives.

That’s not what we are seeing from the Ford Conservatives. Doug Ford walked us into this lockdown — or emergency brake, or whatever we are calling it — with eyes wide open.

While experts were warning him of explosive growth of more infectious and more deadly

variants, he cancelled public health protections. He marched us right into grave danger.

It should never have come to this. This wave didn’t have to be this horrific.

The “shutdown” is too little and too late. It’s the same failed approach Ford has already been taking.

This is not about individual bad actors; people are doing what we are allowed to do. This is about failed political leadership.

The public health measures fall far short of what experts say are needed. It’s full of more mixed messaging. There are no financial supports for communities, people or small businesses.

There are no paid sick days, and no comprehensive testing in essential workplaces.

There is no cap on class sizes so kids can socially distance in schools. There is no comprehensive plan to get the vaccine to essential workers and no paid time off to get the shot.

We desperately need more — and Ontario desperately deserves better.

Chris Loreto:

I really wrestle with all of this. I find it hard to be partisan on this whole issue. I think it is tough for political leaders to satisfy anyone in this environment.

Ford is being criticized for not doing enough. But only a few weeks ago Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie was arguing that Mississauga should be separated from Peel and put into Red. Then the Chief Medical Officer for Peel shuts all the schools down.

You can’t win for trying. The environment is moving too fast. It is hard fighting an invisible enemy.

I think the government was right not to fully shut down retail this time. Retailers have taken too many punches in all of this. The lockdown before Christmas was devastating for many. Part of helping our retailers is to make sure we are only shopping when we absolutely have to.

Some will argue that we should close down the malls and big box stores. No one ever really considers what kind of panic this may cause in the population. For many, big box stores are where they shop to feed and clothe their families. We need to have some level of openness as we drive to get people vaccinated.

We need to ramp up vaccinations. Where the province can do better is targeting vaccinations. I think we need to move from the age cohorts to focus on vulnerable communities and workers. My son works in a grocery store. He should be getting a shot.

If we have empty vaccinations centres, we need to move more quickly to get others in who are ready. We may also need to move from a “come to us”, to “we’ll go to you” vaccination approach. This seems to have worked in long-term care where the first wave of vaccinations was focused — the number of cases and deaths have reduced significantly.

Sarbjit Kaur:

Understanding these are uncharted waters, nobody is expecting perfection.

However, we’ve been to this shutdown rodeo a few times now and should know when it’s not working. And we’ve seen other countries and parts of Canada get back to normal by being tough and getting to COVID-19 zero before opening up again. They’ve been quick to apply emergency measures as necessary as well as when experiencing setbacks.

We seem to want to wait and be in denial until everyone is ringing alarm bells and finally the government will act.

Worst of all we’re seeing more deaths. There’s no excuse for putting retail workers, teachers, transit and taxi drivers and so many others who aren’t able to work from home at risk. A real lockdown would protect everyone and also get us to COVID-19 zero faster.

For sure people are frustrated. But if we’re going to do a lockdown again — can we get it right? Or be more strategic with our vaccination rollout if we insist on keeping things open and putting those who have no choice but to be exposed at risk?

I agree with Chris about vaccinations being part of this. My daughter also works in a grocery store. The trade-off for keeping things open should be some protection for workers — who are also often spreaders as they interact with other workers and multiple customers. 

I don’t know that we can count on malls etc. for enforcement but a combination of a better lockdown (why not close down all schools when spring break is coming?) and more strategic vaccinations would be very helpful.

Not sure this government is capable. Like I said, nobody expects perfection but mobile vaccinations and going to hot spots are some obvious tactics that just don’t seem to have been planned for.

Fred Hahn:

This isn’t about being partisan. Any leader of any party that messed this up this badly would be held to account.

It is the lack of a clear province wide plan that is causing some to go off on their own — and the mixed messages about the economy being more important than public health.

There are over one million doses of vaccine in storage and many more on the way — we need a plan to get that into the arms of essential workers — in grocery stores, factories, schools, community services — now.

Over the weekend I saw a Tweet saying there are six COVID-19 cases in long-term care — six. This proves vaccination works. But we don’t have an accelerated vaccination plan at all — and that, at this point, is just unacceptable.

And yes, community and small business were hurt by a total shut down. They are not the problem. Malls, huge big box stores — that’s where we have seen the huge crowds.

But if the Conservatives are not willing to enforce actual standards then what do we do? Keep blaming people who are only doing what the government is telling them they are allowed to do?

There are so many who have been calling clearly and strongly for paid sick days — past leaders of the Conservative Party, now mayors, unions, coalitions, everyday folks — and yet there is an ideological block at Queen’s Park, and that means we will see more preventable deaths.

This is not the time for half measures — we had close to or over 3,000 cases a day over the weekend — but on Tuesday a press conference to give us an update on progress and new measures told us nothing, except wait for Wednesday … maybe …

We are all exhausted — the members of my union who have been on the front lines of this are exhausted — and days like these just add to the mental stress we are all feeling.

We deserve more. We need more.

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  Fred Hahn is the President of CUPE Ontario, working for legislative, policy and political changes affecting public service, equality and empowered communities across the country. He is a veteran supporter of the NDP. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co-founder of KPW Communications.

Strengthening Democracy in the Age of COVID-19

By Hershell Ezrin

At a time when the functioning of democracy in its responsiveness to the pandemic’s challenges is under intense scrutiny around the world, efforts to improve the transparency surrounding Canadian government decision-making should be applauded.

Political and lobbyist transparency, election finance reform and other factors affecting the conduct of elections have finally moved to the legislative forefront federally and in Ontario.

While there remains no assurance that implementation will occur in advance of the next electoral cycle, if at all, the legislative changes under review address a number of loopholes and experience at both levels.

Their adoption in whole or part may have long term effects on how advocacy influences government decisions and the public’s ability to understand what is happening behind the scenes. They further address how lobbying is conducted in a COVID-19 virtual world.

The preliminary recommendations circulated by the federal Commissioner of Lobbying to improve the current legislation have been provided in response to a November 2020 request from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

The last review to the federal Lobbying Act took place in 2012; the Lobbyist’s Code of Conduct, was updated in 2015.  In addition to the unimplemented recommendations from the 2012 effort, the Commissioner has also “reviewed Canadian provincial and territorial regimes, as well as the cities of Ottawa and Toronto which are part of the network of federal and provincial lobbying regulators”.

As described, the recommendations presented seek to balance “that open and free access to government decision-makers is a matter of public interest and that lobbying is a legitimate activity” with enhancing public trust in ethical government decision-making.

The recommendations are based and assessed on four principles: transparency, fairness, clarity and efficiency.

Among the most significant changes proposed is an effort to amend the Lobbying Act to remove the “significant part of duties” registration threshold for in-house lobbyists which differs from 50 hours per year to 20% of the duties of one employee in various Canadian jurisdictions. 

This definition would be replaced federally by an obligation to register lobbying activities by default unless a limited exemption based on objective criteria applies. The rationale is the current system is difficult to apply and to enforce.

In pursuit of transparency and clarity, the Commissioner is also proposing to expand reporting requirements for monthly communication reports. The key change would require that monthly communication reports be prepared for all oral communications (expanding a narrower definition of when an oral communication has to be reported) with designated public office holders and list all those who participated in the communication. 

From my perspective, this change would be particularly relevant in the COVID-19 period. According to the Commissioner, “current monthly communication reports do not list the names of the lobbyists or the client who are present during an oral communication (i.e. a meeting, telephone call, videoconference or other verbal communication), anyone who accompanied them, or any other public office holders who participated in the communication.”

In what is likely to be a controversial recommendation, the Commissioner is proposing that lobbyist registrants add reporting of additional contextual information in monthly public filings.  Such contextual information would make it easier for the media or interested stakeholders to find important information that would contribute to the transparency of the process. Examples offered include such things as whether lobbying occurred during a sponsored trip or during an event offered by a lobbyist.  Where a designated public office holder is an elected official, it could also include whether political donations have been provided.

A year-old Ontario private members’ Bill 162, supported by the major political parties as well as the PC Government House Leader, complements a number of initiatives reflected in the federal recommendations. Slowly wending its way through Committee stage after second reading, this bill would also require increased public disclosure by lobbyists and by Ministers.

The tabled Bill would require detailed filings in respect of consultants and in-house lobbyists including dates and times. More significantly, the bill refers to “any electronic communications made or received” during the reported period, particularly relevant during this COVID-19 period.

Legal experts have raised questions as to whether the breadth of this new draft requirement might compel lobbyists “to submit the full content of all emails, texts and electronic messages on the subject being advocated.”

In addition to increasing penalties, the Bill would compel the Integrity Commissioner to conduct investigations into allegations of wrongdoing advanced not only by MPPS (the current situation) but also by the public in certain circumstances. Changes would also be made to the Public Service of Ontario allowing broader public referral to the Integrity Commissioner.

Finally, in late February 2021, the Ontario government moved ahead with proposed amendments that affect elections laws.

If passed, the proposed changes will increase the election contribution limits for individual and candidates and significantly change the ability of third-party political advertisers to spend in the critical pre-election period, extending the controls and limits on spending to 12 months from the current six-month period. The proposals also introduce amendments to expand the list of activities in which third-parties could not engage in any attempt to circumvent the spending limit.

The role of third-party advocates has been a particularly sore point for the Ontario PCs; it is not surprising they continue to seek to reduce their influence. Over the last two decades, PCs have fought groups such as Working Families, bankrolled by unions, for their consistent attacks on the PC party and its leadership. Observers have claimed several of the past Ontario elections since 2003 have been affected by third-party strategic spending on attack ads.

In the virtual world of politics that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced, the range of changes could contribute significantly to broader transparency while acknowledging the place of advocacy in our democratic system. These recommendations can help bolster trust in government.

Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.

The ONW Salon: Should Ontario make online learning permanent?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): The province sent out a confidential document recently outlining the possibility of legislation making online learning a permanent feature of public schools. Is this a good idea for our students? We asked Sarbjit Kaur, David Wills and Chris Loreto.

Sarbjit Kaur:

It’s funny that during the pandemic the government insisted on keeping schools open, but after, it wants to go online.

There is absolutely no evidence that online learning is good for kids. In fact, quite the opposite, with kids struggling academically and mentally during COVID-19.

There’s certainly a case to be made for exploring this at the university and college levels, but for anyone younger there simply isn’t enough evidence to support such a move.

Seems like an excuse to fire teachers and save money.

Socialization and interaction are so important for children — having exposure to adults and children outside of their families, having access to a good education that is properly supervised and monitored, school breakfast and lunch programs, sports and other activities, even counsellors and adults who can be a point of contact for kids who need help. Mental health is already a real problem in this generation of kids.

Nobody knows exactly why but there have been strong links to the amount of time spent online and on screens and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The diversity, equity and inclusion that we seek to promote in our communities also occurs naturally in schools. The younger years are crucial for lifelong character building. This isn’t the area to be using technology to save costs.

David Wills:

Sarbjit flagged the big issue — the lack of evidence and the lack of information in setting it up.

Is this a good idea for students? The correct answer is “I don’t know.” And neither does the Minister of Education.

The past 12 months have been an extraordinary time for students, parents, teachers and workers in the education sector. The one thing we do know is that there is a lot of added stress for everyone. The last thing students need is a major shift to something that has not been studied, planned for and thought out.

We remember that this was part of the government’s agenda before COVID-19, and it was clear it was about saving money, and according to reports, developing revenue streams for the Ministry.

If we learned anything the past year it is that we have an obligation to make learning better. Period. Not cheaper. Not with just more choice. Actually better.

Online learning could be part of that for some students, but it should be properly designed with students’ interests in mind.

The most telling part of all of this has been the Minister’s refusal to even talk with teachers and their unions. They have the direct experience with what worked this past year and what failed. They are the experts who should be designing any online components. To ignore them is almost ensuring it will not be done well.

Chris Loreto:

So, the folks who read us on a weekly basis may want to take a screen shot because we may all be in violent agreement.

This is a policy that cannot be rushed. As a father of five boys, I can tell you that online is very difficult on the student, on the teacher, and on the parents. And I must confess, even though we both work, the majority of workload has fallen on my wife. And I am sure this is very true for most families.

The big issue is pedagogy. It cannot be a lecture, or simply streaming the in-class lesson. Research is need to understand where, how, when, and with whom online learning is best used.

It is not a replacement for in-class — it should be used to augment the educational experience. I can see using online education to provide specialized learning to specific cohorts, but not simply an “election” out of in-class.

Add to this the fact, despite the government’s impressive commitment, reliable broadband is lacking in so many parts of this province, and it will create real inequities. If we are out at least three to five years on reliable broadband, then we may be out three to five years on a prudent, evidence-based online learning approach for Ontario.

Sarbjit Kaur:

I think we see now more than ever how important schools are.

Schools are really second homes for kids. And community hubs. We should be investing more in them and “making them great again” with mental health resources, recreational activities and more, right on the premises. Instead we’re letting them fall into a state of disrepair and putting up more portables.

People pay a good amount in taxes and other service fees. Time and time again we hear from residents that schools, transit, healthcare and social services need to keep up with development and population growth.

Like the move to allowing the 7-11 to sell beer, one wonders: Who is asking for this?

Also, as David mentioned they are not talking to teachers. That’s so disrespectful given the work they’ve done during the pandemic as essential workers.

Parents and kids will stand up for their teachers — this won’t be a popular move. Especially not now when everyone wants to get back to normal life and a huge part of that is going to school!

Like Chris, I’ve seen my own teens struggle with this arrangement. One is in university and I can see some pros for her — but not for the younger kids.

David Wills:

We all have some really good ideas here. Maybe we can suggest a tri-partisan working group of the three of us to work it out?

Right now, we are seeing a new COVID-19 wave that in all likelihood will result in another school shutdown. That’s probably why they are telegraphing a potential move of the March Break, again.

This means classes go back online and the parents of younger kids go back to supervising them.

My boys are older, and were able to self-manage for the most part.

But the stories of the teacher leading a grade four class while simultaneously managing her own small children were incredible. These are the people who should be designing any future online teaching.

For those who signed up to teach online the entire year, they will tell you how hard it is, how much more work it was, and how the outcomes were disappointing. It is not an equal substitute.

I’m glad this conversation is happening, as it really needs more thought and more input.

Chris Loreto:

Actually, an all-party effort is not a bad idea. If there ever was something for an all-party committee to look at, it is this.

Because the truth is, some level of online learning will be part of the education system of the future. It will need to be a basic skill for the workforce.

It is important to separate online learning and the right approach from the current context. Policy should be developed with a more normal environment in mind.

However, we also know that many more parents than expected opted for online at the beginning of this school year, and given the pace of vaccinations relative to variants, this will likely continue to be true this fall. So, the government will need to have short-term plan for the next school year.

But I would caution the government about making policy on the fly. This is not a partisan issue, this is a fundamental discussion about how education is delivered and how it will benefit or harm kids.

Some level of online learning is needed. It will become a bigger feature of post-secondary education, the workplace, and life-long learning. Building the study and other skills to consume content online is just as important as doing the same for the in-classroom experience.

It may also make sense in terms of offering a greater course selection at the secondary level where there is not the demand at a specific school to merit offering a course. Aggregating demand, using an online learning approach, could be one important way to expand offerings to students and offer specialization for students who know what they want to do — kinda like me in school, but definitely not like my own kids.

I do think the government deserves credit for starting the conversation on this. It is an important one, and I agree that teachers need to be at the table to design something that works for all involved.

We have basically delivered education in the same way for more than 150 years in this country. Like with all things, COVID-19 is forcing changes in business and delivery models, and education is no different.  

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  David Wills is a Senior Vice President at Media Profile. He worked as NDP political staff at Queen’s Park and provides counsel to federal, provincial and municipal elected officials. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co -founder of KPW Communications.

Randall White: Bethlenfalvy Bets On “Growth Unlike Anything We’ve Seen in The Province”

By Randall White

Statistics Canada’s March 12 release of the monthly Labour Force Survey for February helped set an intriguing stage for Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy’s March 24 release of the 2021 Ontario Budget.

The upbeat Labour Force headline was that the Canada-wide unemployment rate “fell 1.2 percentage points to 8.2% in February, the lowest rate since March 2020.”  

In Ontario the February unemployment rate also fell, from 10.2% in January to 9.2%.

But the rate for Canada’s most populous province was above the Canada-wide average.

In fact, when provincial unemployment rates for January and February are ranked, from lowest to highest, Ontario has the third highest rate, after Alberta and Newfoundland. 

The Canada-wide rate for January, for instance, was 9.4%. And the three highest provincial rates were in Ontario (10.2%), Alberta (10.7%), and Newfoundland (12.8%).

The Canada-wide rate for February was 8.2%. And again, the high-end of the provincial distribution was filled by Ontario (9.2%), Alberta (9.9%), and Newfoundland (15.3%).

It may be a while before we can begin to understand the economic numbers statisticians report in the middle of global pandemics. 

The Ontario trouble suggested by the latest provincial unemployment rates was nonetheless alluded to at the end of Mr. Bethlenfalvy’s Ontario Budget Speech.

“Our people’s hard work, ingenuity and drive for better, stronger families and communities,” the Minister of Finance urged, “will set us on a path that restores Ontario’s place as the economic engine of the country.”

Ontario of course is not the only self-declared economic engine of Canada. The Wild Rose Province of Alberta has advanced similar claims over the past few decades.

With the first year of the pandemic behind us, some will ask why both former economic engines are so close to the bottom of the provincial unemployment-rate heap at the moment?  

If the February rates are any guide, the economic engine of the country has most recently migrated to such provinces as Quebec (6.4%) and BC (6.9%).

Some might say that the Ontario Budget is at least trying to point in new directions. Despite the Ford nation’s early enthusiasm for reducing the cost of government, the Minister of Finance today is still stressing “the Premier’s simple promise to the people — we will do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”

So under “Protecting People’s Health” in the Budget Speech, much is said about spending and other plans for vaccines, testing, hospitals, long-term care, mental health, and domestic violence. 

Under “Protecting Our Economy” much more is said about the Ontario COVID-19 Child Benefit, students (and online learning), broadband expansion in rural areas, Ontario Jobs Training Tax Credit, Ontario Small Business Support Grant, and the tourism, hospitality, culture, sport and recreation industries.

This is still an Ontario PC budget, despite the minister’s artful bow to “the leader of the opposition who has played such an important role holding our government to account.” 

Yet whatever else, the Ford Conservative government has run up a vast debt doing whatever it takes to protect the people of Ontario from the worst of a once-in-a-century biomedical disaster. 

The unprecedented $38.5-billion deficit for the fiscal year just ending is projected to fall to $33.1 billion for 2021-22. 

But total spending in 2021-22 is a record $186.1 billion. On moderate growth assumptions the deficit will not be eliminated until 2029-30. 

Faster or slower economic growth would mean an earlier or later date for potential budgetary balance.

And this underlines a key feature of the 2021 Ontario Budget’s plan for dealing with the vast debt that has been run up in the fight against COVID-19. 

On the strategy now, the debt will be covered by future economic growth and the increased revenues it will bring — not by raising taxes or cutting services. (Though the Ontario PCs still seem to be hoping that online learning can reduce the costs of teachers in schools.)

At the very end of his speech Peter Bethlenfalvy somewhat Trumpishly alluded to “the Ontario Spirit” which “will unleash growth unlike anything we’ve seen in the province, ever before.”   

This may have been the least convincing part of what could otherwise pose as a well-thought-out, if also clearly conservative, step ahead into the unknown future of public finance everywhere.  

(Although in a future Canada with diverse growth points in all big and even small places, thanks to rural broadband and so forth, talk about the restoration of “Ontario’s place as the economic engine of the country” could seem almost equally unpromising.) 

On the other hand, how many present-day residents north of the Great Lakes will complain if Ontario does actually have “growth unlike anything we’ve seen in the province, ever before” — at some point soon enough, and ideally before June 2, 2022?

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.

The ONW Salon: What Should be in the Ford Government’s Budget?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): The Minister of Finance is bringing down his budget Wednesday.  With this unprecedented pandemic still upon us, what measures does he need to bring in to help our battered economy while still dealing with a massive health crisis? We asked Chris Loreto, Sarbjit Kaur and David Wills.

Chris Loreto:

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy has been clear in his pre-budget communications that he will deliver a balanced fiscal plan that continues to focus on handling the public health crisis that is still ravaging the province and begin to put in place the building blocks necessary to support the province’s economic recovery.

This means we will not see spending cuts, or tax cuts. It will be a budget focused on investing in fighting the pandemic and seeding the province’s economic recovery.

A year ago, the popular wisdom was that this budget would be entirely focused on recovery. But COVID-19’s stubbornness and the slow procurement of vaccines means that the government cannot totally shift its focus to recovery.

So, what are we likely to see in the budget?

• There will be a continued focus on investments in healthcare generally, and long-term care and perhaps mental health specifically. The government has made significant progress in rolling out its long-term care capital renewal program and we should expect to see some more definition around the funding of care levels in long-term care. Prior to the pandemic, the government released its mental health strategy and there is still considerable work to be done on where and how the government will meet its 2018 commitments on mental health. It would make sense for the government to include mental health investments in this budget to fulfill its campaign commitments and to also deal with the mental health needs of Ontarians coming out of the pandemic.

• There will likely be additional commitments to help small businesses continue to navigate the impacts of COVID-19 — maybe an expansion of small business grants.

• From a recovery perspective, I believe the government will continue with its focus on skills training investments in the skilled trades, certain health professions like PSWs, and skills upgrading in response to labour market demands through micro-credentials from Ontario post-secondary institutions. I would also expect some more details on the framework within which the new Invest Ontario agency will be operating to attract investment to the province.

• Broadband is likely to be a marquee initiative and a centre piece of Ontario’s recovery plan in this budget. The lack of connectivity outside the GTHA is a major economic gap for Ontario’s competitiveness and the government cannot support recovery without putting a serious plan and money in place to deliver better broadband infrastructure. Physical infrastructure will be secondary in this budget.

This government deserves credit for delivering two budgets in less than six months, which makes you wonder why the federal Liberals cannot deliver at least one in two years. #friendlypartisanjab

Sarbjit Kaur:

The Premier will have to start to do some of the heavy lifting.

The pandemic has created more inequality, and exposed major gaps in our public health (including mental health) and education infrastructure.

Major investments in job creating projects like schools, hospitals and jobs that provide a living wage are needed.

We saw during the pandemic who the essential workers are. And while much lip service was given to them, did their working conditions or wages improve? From Amazon workers, to PSWs, they risked their lives every day. The budget needs to have more than just free tuition for these low wage workers — the job has to be viable.

Housing prices have skyrocketed. It’s harder than ever to achieve what previous generations have been able to establish. There are opportunities to do interesting things post-pandemic to create more housing that is accessible to lower income and middle-class Ontarians.

But it will be interesting to see if the Ford government will bring forward anything truly exciting and ground breaking. Which is what is needed now.

Right now, the feds are doing the hard work of supporting Canadians through this crisis.

David Wills:

Investment number one has to be for permanent funding to public health.

Remember, this government started slashing public health in 2018 prior to the pandemic. We need to make investments now to be better prepared for a future crisis.

With long-term care, the government has already indicated it will double down on privatization. But what is needed are investments that lead to higher standards, more effective oversight and better care for our seniors.

And as Sarbjit mentioned, training of PSWs is not enough. They need higher wages, job protections, more full-time hours and paid sick days.

If we don’t see tax cuts as Chris has suggested, we will see business programs. This government prefers initiatives aimed at employers, not workers.

What would be nice, but is unlikely, is to see some investment in the COVID-19 recovery that at the very least recognizes the need to address climate change, but I am not holding my breath. I suspect most of the effort to be about returning to the past, not mapping out a better path forward.

Chris Loreto:

While this budget will not have spending cuts or tax cuts in it, it will be important for the government to establish a fiscal anchor to provide some sense of fiscal direction for the market, and speaking politically, the Tory base.

I believe the government would be smart (given that Ontario’s net debt is standing at 50% of GDP, and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future) to put a stake in the ground to return to balance before the end of this decade.

This will not totally satisfy fiscal hawks, but moving any faster to balance the budget is likely to be both economically and politically disastrous. It is also a responsible thing to do if interest rates spike and all this spending comes home to roost in even bigger debt servicing charges.

I do expect there to be a heavy federal-provincial dynamic around health care in this budget. The Premiers have been consistent in their demand that the federal government increase health transfers with a target to be a 35% partner by mid-decade.

With a federal election imminent, it will be good politics and good policy for Premier Ford to argue strongly for increased federal transfers. I would suggest that he go even further and demand that the federal government be a 50/50 partner once again by 2030.

Sarbjit Kaur:

I fear this budget will not address problems exposed during the pandemic.

With a focus on fiscal responsibility this soon after such a devastating period, we’re not going to see the supports we need for everyday Ontarians who are struggling.

On the mental health front young people have been hit hard and we don’t even know the true extent of the impacts. Anyone who’s ever tried to get mental health help knows it’s a long and frustrating process. If we can put police officers in schools why can’t we put mental health workers in schools?

In terms of long-term care — will the deaths of all the seniors who died alone under horrible conditions be acknowledged? Or will we proceed with business as usual and forget how truly horrible this pandemic has been for many?

Workers need more than banging pots and pans — they deserve proper wages, working conditions and a pathway to get out of dead end, gig economy jobs. These are the employers this government supports with initiatives etc. rather than thinking about what are the good jobs that we need to rebuild our economy on. Green jobs that also support the environment and climate change goals. Not paving over wetlands to build warehouses.

David Wills:

I love how provincial Conservative governments preach fiscal restraint while demanding more liberal (small L) spending by the federal government.

If they want greater federal involvement, I would love to see Ontario endorse national pharmacare and childcare programs as a path to recovery, especially as both those programs would be most beneficial to those who got hurt the most by COVID-19 — women and lower wage workers.

But let’s remember — this will be an election budget. The fixed date is June next year, so Ford will need and want to set a path that Conservatives can rally behind.

We know what those priorities always are: tax cuts and spending cuts.

The downside of this approach is that it pits us against each other. We will see this budget start a new narrative on recovery, one that favours private sector over public sector.

We will not see much for education, and the war against teachers will continue. That war speaks to their base. We will see training programs that benefit employers, but which will do little to improve wages.

In short, nothing will be surprising. The election will effectively start the day of the budget.

I’ll give a spoiler alert. No matter what is in it, Tory supporters will say it is the greatest budget ever. The NDP will criticize it for not doing enough for workers and those most in need, and the Liberals will use it as an opportunity to try and find their ideological ground to run on.

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  David Wills is a Senior Vice President at Media Profile. He worked as NDP political staff at Queen’s Park and provides counsel to federal, provincial and municipal elected officials. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co -founder of KPW Communications.

Hershell Ezrin: The Pandemic’s Ongoing Effects on Politics

By Hershell Ezrin

There is no vaccination on the horizon to immunize Canadian politics from the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

In the Groundhog Day existence that passes for our daily reality, Canadians are surrounded by a singular focus commanding all our attention.

The media inundates us with pandemic stories about COVID-19 variants, third waves and all manner of vaccine information overload. 

The pandemic’s disruption has altered the conduct of business, civil society, education, medicine, religion, culture and even simple family social gatherings.

Working online from home, mask-wearing, curb-side pick-up and home delivery, physical distancing, zoom funerals and medical appointments and contactless payment systems have come to dominate our psyche.

That is why there should be no surprise to the fundamental changes that the pandemic is inflicting upon the nature of politics and political theatre.  

The chaotic Newfoundland and Labrador election has been postponed yet again. On Feb. 12, the province’s Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk had cancelled all in-person voting in the provincial election — a day before it was originally scheduled — because authorities imposed lockdown measures across the province to stop a COVID-19 outbreak.

The latest deadline for returning mail-in ballots for the delayed provincial election is March 25. This pushes out the postmark deadline that Chaulk had previously established as March 12; before that, he had said ballots must be returned by March 5, which was an extension of the original March 1 deadline.

The popularity of numerous provincial Premiers seems tied exclusively to vaccine acquisition and distribution, the application of lockdown brakes and colour-coded regional priorities that have come to dominate the public’s understanding of policy choices.

Jason Kenney, Scott Moe and even Ontario’s Doug Ford are facing the havoc that management of the pandemic’s impacts has wreaked on their political popularity.

Will the Trudeau government be credited for a bold economic response to the initial pandemic or will its political future be condemned by a slow vaccine rollout?

The pandemic has also redefined the focus of federal-provincial relations. Recall the ongoing debate about who is to blame for vaccine acquisition (witness Manitoba’s attacks on the federal government for a unified national acquisition policy), vaccine distribution plans (Doug Ford criticizing the national vaccine table for its changed guidance about the acceptability of Astra-Zeneca dosage for seniors), the unwillingness to adopt emergency measures nationally in the face of the pandemic or the absence of a proper paid sick leave policy to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace (Ontario denying its responsibility and blaming the federal government.)

Even when certain provincial demands remain constant, such as seeking more health care funding, the pandemic becomes the rationale for urgent increases beyond the emergency funds already disbursed. 

Political issues that once seemed important have receded into the background.

Two years without a federal budget appears less relevant as long as the pandemic support lifeline remains in place.

Potential scandals at different levels of government appear to gain little traction in the public mind (Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s explanation of his delayed reaction to the Vance whistleblower, Premier Ford’s unsubstantiated attack on “the vaccine queue jumping” of an Indigenous MPP, let alone the rerun of the WE Charity episode in front of another parliamentary enquiry.)

Opposition parties find it difficult to attract much concerted attention or momentum, with most media attention focused on the steady diet of pandemic news from the government or its scientific experts.

Impressive achievements that could normally create or change political momentum going into the next political election cycle are quickly discarded on the garbage heap of yesterday’s news.

The NDP in Ontario delivered a comprehensive environmental program, only to attract cursory attention.

How else can you explain the non-reaction to the Ontario Liberals’ (currently not an accredited party at Queen’s Park) remarkable fundraising achievement to pay off a $10 million campaign debt more than a year before the next election. 

Pre-pandemic, such achievements would have attracted much media speculation and public interest about the implications for political change or the nature of political discourse.

The pandemic continues to profoundly affect the practice of politics in other ways as well.

Virtual participation, including voting in parliamentary sessions, committees and dealing with constituents, has become the norm. Advocacy and lobbying will never be the same.

The same strict lockdown politicians have imposed upon the public for health and safety reasons limits their ability to meet and greet constituents, campaign or hold events for fundraising.

The connectivity offered by political parties has become less relevant. The role of volunteers in face to face canvassing is changing; the capability of new and unknown candidates to get acquainted with constituents will be severely tested.

Despite all the advances on the vaccination front and the prospects of some easing of lockdowns, the emergence of pandemic variants suggests a third wave is coming.

Ultimately, will the fear of future pandemic spreads force fundamental changes to the voting process itself (expansion of absentee ballots, expanded mail in or electronic voting) and how will those potential changes impact campaigning and voter turnout?

The script for the long-term implications on politics is being drafted. The only certainty is to expect extensive change as the new political normal.

Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.

Randall White: How Much Does the U.S. “Buy American” Wolf at The Door Really Matter?

By Randall White

In late January, voters north of the Great Lakes were reading headlines like “Ontario slams Joe Biden government’s Buy American executive order” and “Ontario opposes new U.S. executive order on ‘Buy American’.”

Some local thoughts on this subject were raised again just a week or so ago, in early March, by an article in the U.S. progressive insider magazine Washington Monthly. 

As reporter Anne Kim explained, the Biden administration’s “embrace of Buy American is politically smart.” But it “won’t save the nation’s economy or rescue its manufacturing.” Ultimately it “may do more harm than good,” or almost nothing at all.

Wherever it is practiced, “buy here” economic nationalism often attracts politicians and the media, without doing most economic actors much real good. “Buy At Home,” many economists would argue, is better public relations than public policy. 

At the same time, it is worth remembering that President Biden’s new Buy American executive order is not addressed to American consumers at large.

It is just about rules for purchases made directly by U.S. government organizations — so-called federal procurement expenditures.

Buy American policies in this sense, whatever else, do not involve any substantial or even minor but important chunk of the Canadian economy. 

A senior policy director at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce recently estimated the annual value of U.S. federal procurement contracts won by Canadian businesses at some 0.04 % of Canada’s gross domestic product.

As Anne Kim at the Washington Monthly also explains, in the complex real world of American government, Biden’s executive order “merely adds a layer of bureaucracy to federal purchasing requirements, some of which date back to 1933” (in the Great Depression.) 

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 97% of U.S. federal procurement already goes to U.S. companies. In Canada we scramble with others for the remaining crumbs on the table.

Anne Kim similarly reminds her American readers that over-aggressively expanding “Buy National” policies beyond the Biden executive order — as in China’s increasing reliance on “local content requirements” — will only invite retaliation from other places. 

In Ontario we have our own reasons to remember this. Back in mid-November, when the news broke that “Joe Biden has embraced ‘America first’,” the Toronto Star pointed out how “Doug Ford can play that game too.”

As evidence of Premier Ford’s game, late in October it was announced that “Online directory of Ontario-made products will make it easier to buy local: province.” Back in July it had been reported: “Doug Ford urging people to buy ‘made in Ontario’ products.”

(And this was addressed to Ontario consumers at large, persuasively or otherwise. It was not just about rules for purchases made directly by the Queen’s Park bureaucracy.)

In the end it is not the government of Canada’s most populous province that will do whatever needs to be done about Canadian policy on the Joe Biden Buy American executive order. It is of course the government of Canada in Ottawa that looks after international relations.  

Prime Minister Trudeau has already raised the issue in a phone conversation with Vice President (and former Montrealer) Kamala Harris. 

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Trudeau and Harris have discussed “avoiding the unintended consequences” of President Biden’s Buy American order.

The Conservative Opposition has urged that Canada should secure a waiver from the order — as the Harper government finally did with a somewhat similar Obama-Biden order of 2009. 

But it took Canada more than a year to negotiate a Buy American waiver back then.

Under the Biden-Harris 2021 order a new “Made in America” office attached to the White House will grant waiver applications only in exceptional circumstances. As President Biden has stressed, this “hasn’t happened before” but “will happen now.”  

The question begs to be asked. The issue apparently bears some potent political symbolism. Yet how much expenditure of scarce Canadian diplomatic capital does it deserve, considering its limited real impact on the Canadian economy? 

There certainly are broader possible concerns about protectionist U.S. trade policies under the new administration. But as International Trade Minister Mary Ng has pointed out, “Canada is the No. 1 customer for more than 32 states.” 

There is also a new trade agreement meant to restrain protectionist impulses inside North America. And there are as yet no signs that the new president will also indulge in tariff warfare even with such an agreement. 

As has been noted elsewhere, if Canada can survive four years of Donald Trump, it can navigate the somewhat enhanced Buy American procurement policies of Joseph Biden.