Politicians often compare household and government budgets. For one, they tell us they’re both about balancing income against spending. But there’s an important difference between them. For a household in crisis, cutting spending and saving money is usually a key response. But for a government which represents many people and communities with different challenges, the best response in times of crisis is more spending — more investment in the public services we rely on.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the Ford conservatives expertly play a game of sleight of hand. During his daily press briefings, Doug Ford led many to believe that he’s taking action to keep Ontarians healthy and to support the many residents who’ve been impacted by the economic fallout. And he’s convinced many of us that these actions include significant funding — spending by the Progressive Conservative government — for the supports we need.
But the reality is very different.
First, the spending that’s been supporting Ontarians isn’t even coming from the Ford conservatives, with the province’s Financial Accountability Officer (FAO) recently reporting that 97 per cent of all government spending in Ontario is actually federal money.
Last week, Ontario’s Ministry of Finance hosted budget consultations, and, as usual, invited written submissions from organizations like ours, as well as the opportunity to give a presentation. But unlike past budget consultations, we were given a strict word limit of only 500 words. And presenters were only given three minutes on Zoom to make their case, which isn’t nearly enough space and time considering our immense challenges.
As the president of a public sector union representing 280,000 members working in health care, municipalities, school boards, social services, and post-secondary education, there’s one thing I know for sure: spending saves lives. Every government should take this fact to heart and make sure to follow it, especially in times of crisis. But instead of doing that, the Ford conservatives are sitting on $9.3 billion of unspent collective resources — money we could use to keep us safe.
On top of that, when corporations are profiting more than ever during the pandemic, the FAO reports that corporate tax cuts have reduced our revenue by an astonishing $6.6 billion.
This is unacceptable. Instead of reducing revenue, it’s time for the provincial government to increase taxes on those who can well afford to pay their fair share: on profitable corporations and the wealthiest in our communities.
The status quo approach is literally killing us. Daily case numbers of COVID-19 exploded and yet testing capacity has not caught up. Our schools are failing to provide the physical distancing needed to prevent transmission from one family to another. The Ontario Hospital Association has warned hospital capacity could easily be overwhelmed if infection rates are not reduced. Outbreaks are growing in long-term-care facilities, daycares and other institutions serving vulnerable populations. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting racialized communities, women, immigrants and low-income residents. And the province’s largest city is not fully contact tracing because they simply don’t have the resources to do it.
The system of penny-pinching, of austerity, of low taxes on corporations and the wealthiest has failed us. We need robust funding and we need to use it to shore up urgently needed public services now. We need this government to change course today.
This means reversing the cuts to our public services the Ford conservatives previously ushered in, weakening us heading into this crisis. It means increasing funding to support a minimum long-term care standard of four hours daily per resident. It means finally addressing the low-wage, precarious nature of work in long-term care, child care, home care, developmental services and shelters, by mandating full-time work and universal wage enhancement grants for anyone earning less than $20 per hour in these settings. It means making the 2020-21 investments for school boards permanent and supplementing them with additional resources to keep our kids and education workers safe. It means increasing university funding to cover the 10 per cent tuition fee reduction and the additional gaps experienced. It means providing additional funding to municipalities to ensure that no city or town is forced to cut public services that people rely on. It means declaring anti-Black racism a public health crisis and directly funding to fight it. And it means choosing people over profits and ordering private industry to produce the N95 masks front-line workers need.
I could go on. Our list of recommendations is long, but that’s because the list of what our communities desperately need, and the examples of the Ford conservatives’ failures to act, is long too.
We’re deep in the second wave. And now it’s this government’s second chance to get things right.