By Randall White
Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy has pointed to similarities between the April 19 Canadian federal budget and his Ontario provincial budget on March 24.
As a prelude to more specific complaints, Mr. Bethlenfalvy noted how he was “pleased to see that the federal budget shares the same priorities our government identified in our 2021 Budget last month — protecting people’s health and our economy.”
In her budget speech federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland did stress that the government of Canada will “continue to do whatever it takes … as long as the fight against this virus requires.”
But her economic plan for what lies ahead has some ingredients that the Ford government will not embrace warmly.
Ms. Freeland’s view that in “2021, job growth means green growth,” for example, is a concept that the first incarnation of Ford Nation rule spent considerable time and money trying to abolish.
The Trudeau Liberals and Ford PCs may agree about what Chrystia Freeland calls the “resource and manufacturing sectors that are Canada’s traditional economic pillars — energy, mining, agriculture, forestry, steel, aluminum, autos, aerospace.”
They may or may not agree about Ms. Freeland’s “social infrastructure that will drive jobs and growth” through a “feminist economic policy … to build a high-quality … early learning and child care system across Canada.”
Yet in one way both federal and provincial budgets are very much on the same page, as the third wave of the global pandemic grows more troubling.
Both documents rely on some great post-pandemic burst of pent-up economic growth to pay for continued dramatic government spending to fight the coronavirus. The two finance ministers’ budget speeches even end on similar notes.
Peter Bethlenfalvy is confident that soon “the Ontario Spirit will unleash growth unlike anything we’ve seen in the province, ever before.”
Chrystia Freeland has expressed her parallel less mystical faith that: “Growth is coming … Canadians are ready to recover and to rebuild … We will finish the fight against COVID … We will come roaring back.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bethlenfalvy’s reaction to Ms. Freeland’s budget was inevitably conditioned by the coterminous Ontario political crisis of mid-April (especially April 16–20).
The crisis — at its height in such media headlines as “There is no one at the wheel in Ontario” and “Calls mount for Doug Ford to resign” — has its immediate origins in some genuinely disconcerting recent increases in COVID-19 numbers.
On Canadian federal budget day, the World Health Organization also reported that “the seven-day average of daily new cases climbed to … the highest it’s been at any point during the pandemic,” across the planet.
(And inside Ontario, the Toronto and Ottawa regions have especially strong ties to the international travelways that help spread the global pandemic.)
One potent narrative is that in the Ford nation’s quest to honour the shared priorities of “protecting people’s health and our economy,” the government has too often favoured the economy over people’s health.
Some have drawn a parallel with the second term of Premier Mike Harris (1995–2002), who finally resigned to let his colleague Ernie Eves try to surface some kinder and gentler side of the “Common Sense Revolution.”
At the height of the April crisis, news that a staffer in his office had contracted COVID-19 prompted Premier Ford to quarantine himself.
His absence from the Legislature may prompt some in his party to regret that Health Minister Christine Elliott didn’t win the March 2018 PC leadership.
The broad similarities between federal and provincial budgets in 2021 — and recent reports from the World Health Organization — may be reasons for wondering just how much blame the Premier deserves for the current COVID-19 surge in Ontario.
But repeated calls for his resignation — along with various declining poll numbers — testify to his failure to advance a persuasive provincial policy for managing the awkward third wave.
There are no doubt reasons for wondering whether Premier Ford would ever actually resign.
It may be worth remembering as well that the Ford Nation government has already gone through two incarnations in its life so far.
If the Ontario COVID-19 case numbers quickly start falling again in any persistent pattern, that could save the current status quo at Queen’s Park.
Alternatively, the Ford Nation PC majority government could self-destruct through some kind of caucus revolt, leading to a new Conservative premier for the June 2022 election.
Backbencher rebellion of this sort seem extremely unlikely at best. But even if it does survive, the current Ford regime may at least have to engineer some new reformed third phase of its practical incarnations since it won the 2018 election.
The Premier’s near-tearful public apology and changing policy allusions of April 22 could be a step in this direction. And the federal government is saying: “We will come roaring back.”
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.