With its 2024 budget, the Ford government is asking you to trust it. You shouldn’t

Posted on March 28, 2024 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors:

TVO.org – Opinion/Politics
Mar 27, 2024.   Written by David Moscrop

OPINION: The Tories are trying to convince voters that spending is adequate, that better days are ahead — and that the budget will balance itself

The 2024 Ontario budget is going to do it all. It’s an everything budget. And the price tag reflects the fact. On March 22, Global’s Colin D’Mello reported that Premier Doug Ford said Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy would present a “very balanced budget per se.” On Tuesday, that… did not happen.

Thanks to new program spending in the billions, a slowing economy, and federal limits on the number of international students, the province is, in fact, projecting a $9.8 billon deficit. It’s also expecting a return to balance by 2026-27, which may be true. Or not. In the fall, the government expected the current projected deficit to be half of what it’s now expecting. There are no new taxes to make up for revenue shortfalls.

Speaking in the legislature as he introduced the budget, Bethlenfalvy peppered his speech with the usual political pablum. “We’re choosing to get it done,” he said. “We’re ready to build,” he insisted. This is a “big ideas” budget. This is his government’s plan “to build a better Ontario,” which raises the question of exactly what the blue team has been up to since 2018. But I digress.

As I mentioned recently, budgets are political things. Indeed, they’re political things first and economic things second. Then there’s the money and the question of what precisely you do with the money. And then there’s context. For example, it’s one thing to announce billions in new health-care spending, as Bethlenfalvy did. It’s another to admit that 1.3 per cent growth is below inflation and nowhere near enough to sustain public health care in the province, let alone sufficiently expand it. It’s another still to admit that all this program spending amounts, on balance, to real-dollar cuts.

Provincial budgets will routinely focus on major subnational responsibilities, and this one certainly did. Health care, education, transportation, and housing feature prominently. The government is going all-in on highways and roads — with a few nods to the poor suckers stuck taking inadequate, crumbling public transportation.

The government is extending the fuel- and gas-tax cuts — “Making it cheaper to drive” as Bethlenfalvy said. What he’s actually doing is socializing the negative externalities of individual behaviour at the worst possible time as we struggle to tame climate change, but the alternative doesn’t poll super-well. So it’s no surprise the government will also be spending billions in the years to come on highway expansions and new interchanges.

There’s also money for housing, education, other infrastructure projects, and programming to boost the skilled trades. It’s bread-and-butter stuff for the province, and the devil will be in the details of program design. Nothing in the document is a serious departure from the usual Tory story.

While blaming tough times on the Bank of Canada for rate hikes and the federal government for the carbon tax, Bethlenfalvy is also expecting things to get better. His critiques of the federal government and its institutions suggest a national hellscape, while his own ministry’s projections seem to indicate that things are set to improve, including interest rates, which are expected to drop and stabilize in a return toward the Bank of Canada’s 2 per cent target rate.

The province’s own projected return to balance is predicated on lower interest rates and a return to economic normality, which means the numbers betray the government’s cynical attacks on the feds. But remember, budgets are political first and economic second.

Understanding the baked-in cynicism of just about every budget helps explain how Bethlenfalvy could say, with a straight face, that the deficit was a mere bump in the road. He referred to it as a temporary challenge, “while the return on our investments will remain for much longer.”

The explanation sounds an awful lot like what we hear from Liberal and New Democratic governments provincially and federally. The Tories in Ontario and their equivalents throughout the country may often rage against deficits, but they seem perfectly fine with them when it’s their side in the red. When conservatives run a deficit, it’s an investment. When others do it, it’s reckless tax-and-spend socialism.

Running a subnational deficit in times like these is, in fact, okay. Governments need to spend to support their populations, especially during bad times. But the Ford government seems to hold itself to a lower standard than it does others. For that, it deserves our ire — and distrust.

Fully unpacking the budget and its implications will take months as the numbers settle, details emerge, programs are developed, and shovels hit the ground (or not). In the meantime, the 2024 budget represents the Ford government asking voters to trust it — that spending is adequate (which it isn’t), that programs will deliver what they promise, that better days are ahead, and that the budget will, dare I say, balance itself.

The government hasn’t earned anybody’s trust, and we ought to withhold it rather than suspend our disbelief. Because if we’ve learned anything about the Ford Progressive Conservatives, it’s to expect the worst.

David Moscrop is a politics writer and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy.


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