Presentation of a budget by a minority government, such as the Ontario Liberal government’s recent $127.6 billion offering, is as much about the budget’s contents as it is about whether or not it will precipitate an election through a non-confidence vote.
So, call it a Wynne Liberal budget, which very few are doing, or call it an NDP budget, which more are doing, or call it an election budget, which the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) surely are doing, the ball now really rests in the court of Ontario’s New Democratic Party (NDP).
But, while items on the NDP agenda have clearly landed in this budget, with much of what they have asked for – and in some cases more – going into the document, NDP leader Andrea Horwath is playing politics by not rubberstamping it right away. That would take the air out of the political theatre that generally follows budget presentations.
Horwath has said her party would consult with the people of Ontario to find out whether this is the budget they want.
So what is in the budget that the NDP pushed for and got? The Liberals promised $295 million over two years to shore up desperately needed youth job programs and youth employment aimed at creating 30,000 jobs. There will be additional money to allow more people who need home care to receive it. Auto insurance premiums would be lowered by 15 per cent on average and would require insurers to offer lower rates to safe drivers. On this, Horwath has expressed concerns that there is no specific time line, and expanded on a history of Liberals’ unfulfilled promises.
People who are receiving social assistance and are working would get a $200 per month earnings exemption and, in such families, more high school students with part-time jobs will not have their incomes penalized. There is also a planned increase to Ontario Child Benefit in July 2013 up to a maximum of $1,210 for each child that is eligible and up to $1,310 in July 2014.
With an eye to voters in rural and northern Ontario, the Liberals propose new spending on roads and bridges despite a cut of $50 million in the Ministry of Northern Development
A cut to corporate tax rebates and a cap on public sector CEO salaries proposed by the NDP to offset spending items, did not make it because, in a minority position, the Liberals have to present a budget that responds to the full spectrum of political interests. That means they have to also win the confidence of the business sector.
But by avoiding substantive tax increases, the Liberals plan to borrow an additional $33.4 billion to finance this year’s budget, which is $3.6 billion more than the previous year. So they may boast of meeting or surpassing deficit targets, but those who care about the bottom line argue that the government is still spending more than it is taking in. Yet, in an economy that is still in a fragile recovery and with some 600,000 unemployed, this strategy, unpopular with fiscal conservatives, is understandable.
Despite this, in his first budget, finance minister Charles Sousa was able to boast that the Liberal deficit target for this fiscal year was surpassed by $5 billion and that they had hit their targets for the past four years. Wage freezes in the health and education ministries are how they have been able to do that, and per capita spending in this province is now lower than in any other, by Liberal estimates.
But if the Liberals are to extend their nine-year reign, they will have to make sure that rural Ontario and those pockets of Conservative voters that ring the Liberal-friendly central Toronto area are satisfied as well. As it is now, polls show around 35 per cent of Ontarians want an election, which is just about the same number of supporters of the Ontario PCs. There seems little debate that this budget responds to the interests of various sectors, but after nine years, the Liberals are burdened by the baggage of controversial choices and fiscal waste, among them the Ornge air ambulance service, the eHealth records conversion program, and the Oakville and Mississauga gas plants cancellations, and residual anger over former premier Dalton McGuinty’s decision to prorogue the provincial legislature.
Opposition politicians see little to reject in the budget itself, but pending NDP support, the vote on the budget expected by the end of the May could rest much more with these other issues.