Andrew Tumilty: When Doug Ford promises savings, best check the receipts
Ford doesn't want to fight the next election on COVID. But how do his pocketbook promises stand up?
By: Andrew Tumilty
From advising people to go away and enjoy their March Break in 2020, to telling Ontario school boards they couldn’t continue their own mask mandates in March of 2022, Premier Doug Ford has often faced criticism over his handling of the pandemic.
But that doesn’t seem to be much on Ontarians’ minds as we hurtle toward another provincial election. Whether it’s the easing of most public-health measures, or fatigue with the last two years, recent polling indicates that affordability issues have replaced COVID as a priority for Ontario voters. With a cumbersome record on the pandemic, conventional political wisdom would suggest Ford should be relieved if public sentiment has shifted to the safer ground of economic issues.
What if that ground is shakier than it might seem for Ford?
Recent Ontario government announcements are designed to make people believe Ford is trying to help them keep more of their money. The Liberals and the NDP should see them as an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that Ford’s pocketbook proposals may not add up to the savings they were promised.
While generations of Canadian parents have waited for something like the heavily subsidized Quebec daycare model to be available across Canada, Ontario’s childcare deal with the federal government shows the kind of financial misdirection typical for Ford.
Ontario parents waited longer than the rest of the country, as Ford’s government went back and forth with the federal government on a deal, nearly missing the deadline entirely. Then, roughly a month before the provincial election is likely to begin, an agreement was finally announced.
Even if you believe that timing is a coincidence, the final deal was reported to be the same one available to Ontario months ago. Whether Ford’s delay was calculated or clumsy, waiting to the last minute likely cost Ontario parents — who already pay the highest fees in the country — thousands of dollars.
Earlier this year, the government eliminated the annual $120 license plate renewal fee in Ontario, and provided refunds to people who paid it over the last two years. While it may seem a small amount, anyone who has lived paycheque-to-paycheque knows the difference a few hundred dollars can make when it arrives unexpectedly.
Still, the benefits to individuals from cancelling this fee should be considered against the cost to the entire province in terms of government revenues. It is estimated that the license plate fees delivered over $1 billion to the provincial government’s coffers each year.
When the government doles out a few hundred dollars one license plate a time, it helps some people for a short time. Investing a billion dollars each year towards affordable housing, public transit, lowering childcare costs even further, or reducing fees for long-term care homes would be more likely to provide the lasting financial relief too many people need.
Subbing instant gratification for sound planning is a consistent pattern with Ford. He cut Toronto’s city council in half, promising it would save money. It didn’t , as councillors added more staff to serve more people, and increased their office budgets.
Any potential savings were further mitigated by the taxpayer money the Ford government spent taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court to justify provincial interference in the middle of a municipal election. In another Supreme Court case, the Ontario government budgeted to spend $30 million to “save” people money by fighting the federal government’s Carbon Tax — a tax most people receive a rebate for paying.
Ford cancelled renewable energy contracts, promising it would save ratepayers over $790 million. The province ended up paying more than $230 million in cancellation fees.
He promised to fire Hydro One’s CEO, who Ford dubbed the “$6 million man” in the 2018 election campaign. After the election the CEO did step down, with a $400,000 severance package and more than $5 million in stock options by some estimates, covered by Hydro One ratepayers.
Ford can’t make this election about Kathleen Wynne and he doesn’t want the election to be about COVID. Affordability is going to be a tempting campaign question to try and win on.
If he does, Ford should be worried that opposition parties and voters across Ontario will be checking his math, and their receipts.
Andrew Tumilty is a Senior Consultant for Strategic Communications and Issues Management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. He has crafted strategic communications materials and advice for local candidates and central campaigns, during elections for all three orders of government. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty
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