Prudent strategy for tough times

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Tue Mar 09 2010

At a time of severe economic upheaval and widespread personal hardship, one thing that can safely be said about Monday’s throne speech is this: the provincial government gets it.

Running throughout the document is a recognition that things cannot continue as they have, and that the government must plot a more strategic future for Ontario’s economy.

Like any throne speech that outlines a government’s agenda – last week’s offering from the federal Conservatives did not set the bar particularly high – this plan of action remains vague. But the framework put forth Monday gives some comfort that the Liberal government is not about to sell Ontarians short by curbing program spending at a time of economic turmoil.

Rather, Queen’s Park is moving to reposition Ontario for the opportunities that lie ahead in the key sectors of the future: The speech sets out a much needed job-creation plan by tapping into the burgeoning green economy – notably clean water technology – and by focusing on the need for a highly educated workforce.

Ontario will increase the number of spaces in universities and colleges by 20,000 this year – a move designed to prevent high-school graduates from being squeezed out by tougher competition for spots from laid-off workers upgrading their skills.

We won’t know the full cost until the budget. But unless the government simultaneously expands the student loan program, any extra spots will remain inaccessible to the many students unable to afford full tuition. Queen’s Park is also counting on increased enrolment by foreign students (who pay higher tuition fees) to help defray the costs of expanding the system. The government is clearly hoping for a win-win on education.

Seeking to duplicate the success of its Green Energy Act, which is already creating jobs and will boost our use of clean energy, such as wind turbines, the throne speech promises a new Water Opportunities Act. The province hopes to capture a bigger chunk of the global market for water technology estimated at more than $400 billion a year.

Promoting Ontario businesses involved in water treatment and conservation positions Ontario well to capitalize on what is a crisis in the making, with the government estimating worldwide demand for water will be 40 per cent greater than current supply in two decades. But gaining credibility as an expert in this field will be difficult if we don’t deal with Ontario’s aging water system.

The speech also raised a series of promising, though still vague, initiatives to rein in health-care costs, which currently account for 46 cents of every program dollar. Among them: a pledge to introduce legislation to make health-care providers “accountable for improving patient care.” And a move toward a “patient-based payment” system that may force urban hospitals to be better and faster in a newly competitive environment to heal patients in cost-effective ways.

A particularly disappointing note in an otherwise forward-looking plan for the province is the absence of a progressive agenda to help Ontario’s most vulnerable. The province has started to make inroads on its commitment to reduce child and family poverty by 25 per cent but far more must be done to achieve that goal, by increasing access to affordable housing and daycare. The government’s virtual silence on these issues suggests increased investment is unlikely in the upcoming budget. If so, that is shortsighted.

This throne speech sketches out a prudent plan for an increasingly knowledge-based economy for the province. But in the transitional years ahead, we cannot afford to leave behind the Ontarians who need an extra hand – or it will only hold us all back.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/article/776911–prudent-strategy-for-tough-times  >

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