Last year Premier Doug Ford promised to create a new slogan for Ontario the licence plates—replacing “Yours to discover” with “A Place to Grow”. In the meantime, the decision was suspended, and Ontario is now a very different place, just like the rest of the world.
The pandemic has hit Ontario businesses hard, and small entrepreneurs are no exception. Now, as we enter the Christmas season with a new lock-down is in effect, entrepreneurs who normally would be ready to start would be benefiting from holiday shopping, are asking for help to avoid a bankruptcy. Recently, the Ontario Government’s announced that $300 million would be available to companies that are losing revenue because of the lockdown. Rebates for municipal property taxes and energy bills will also be available. The Ontario Associate Minister of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction, Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria, shared the details with Manuel DaCosta on “Here’s the Thing”, which will air on Camões TV.
Manuel DaCosta: Knowing how complicated and difficult politics are, especially modern politics, why did you move into political life after being a lawyer with a successful career?
Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria: First of all, thank you so much for having me here, it’s an absolute pleasure, I’ve heard great things about you and your entire team. When I look at politics, I really felt we really needed someone with energy at Queen’s Park, especially in my community in Brampton South. We are a very diverse community in Brampton, and I felt that the needs of the community were not being heard at Queen’s Park and I think you always need to be connected to the grassroots. You need to be connected to the people that have voted you in, the people that speak to you about issues, then be able to effectively communicate those issues as a representative in the legislature. If we look at the context of the province, whether it’s health care or the economy, those were two significant issues which we spoke of and we worked on during the campaign. As we got into government, significant transformations to make a better outcome for the people, not only of the city of Brampton that I represent, but for the entire province. It’s been a very humbling experience, I always say that I’m only there because of the people that have elected me and in order to stay in that position, we must continue to listen to their needs, their concerns and act on those concerns otherwise it would be short lived. I’m very confident that our government has taken the right steps that we’ve been elected to do and brought forward some meaningful change.
MDC: You are the Associate Minister of Small Business and Red Tape–I must plead ignorance about the “Red Tape” side, because I didn’t know that existed–why don’t you tell us a little bit about your position.
PSS: It’s one of the first times that this position is ever been put forward but it really recognizes how difficult it is, sometimes, to do businesses in the province of Ontario. The mandate of this government always been very pro-economy, pro-jobs, create jobs and let entrepreneurs flourish because they will then create more opportunities for other people. We were continuously told, whether it was our stakeholder meetings or at round-tables, that the cost of doing businesses in the province of Ontario was too high and also the regulatory environment in which the businesses had to operate, it doesn’t matter which type of businesses, there was over regulation. We are never against regulation; we are against over regulation. We think that time is better spent for businesses investing in other things—their projects, employees, growing their businesses, rather than filling out onerous forms or reporting. Making government a lot smarter, is really what it comes down to. Making government processes smarter, making your interaction as a business owner and entrepreneurs’ interaction with government smarter, less onerous, and putting that time and money investing into growing the province’s economy. I think that’s really the key and critical part about red tape reduction and why we think it’s really important. Time and time again when we have businesses that want to open up and invest in this province, they highlight that the regulatory environment in which we operate is a significant barrier to entry and for expansion in some cases. That’s exactly what we want to try to change.
MDC: Ontario is the economic heart of this country and we’ve had some positive news recently with Ford, GM and Chrysler coming to the table and signing contracts to develop electric cars, creating a lot of jobs. I have to give credit to your department for doing that, Victor Fedeli and yourself. I think it’s very positive for a province that thought the car industry was dead, it certainly came alive again. On the other side of the coin, as you are well aware of, small businesses are suffering tremendously. Many of them are closing down and we’re losing businesses that have been in families and open for many years. Yes, we do have COVID-19, this is possibly the reason this has happened. Ontario has always been a province where businesses flourish, they don’t die, and right now we’re dying. What’s your message to a community or a province to provide a little bit of encouragement for the future? I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but in the middle of all this negative situation, sometimes visionary words are important.
PSS: I can’t even begin to put in words what this pandemic has done to small businesses across the province. As a government we try to do anything and everything we can to support them, we will continue to do that. Whether it was initially, when we put forth almost $11 billion in supports for deferral payments, whether is bringing programs like the PPE grant program. Very recently we brought in our budget and within that budget we have some significant changes that are going to be help businesses be more competitive. One of things that I am very proud in that budget we been able to put forward is the reduction in energy costs. Every industrial and commercial business will see on average 14% to 16% decrease in energy cost across this province, significant savings. When we look at property taxes for businesses, you will see significant changes and reductions in your property tax going forward, thousands of dollars for those who own buildings or other assets in this province. This is all in the hopes, as we look forward to the time after COVID-19, after pandemic, giving them the tools, for our businesses to not only to compete in Ontario but to compete internationally. You mention manufacturing, one Ford plant, the $2 billion investment they made is going to support thousands of other jobs and businesses that feed into those plants. We’ve seen significant investment into GM, $1.9 billion to support 1,700 jobs across Ontario. When we look at small businesses as well, we make structural changes to decrease and save them thousands of dollars a day or month in their costs such has electricity bills and property taxes. These are all significant savings, that they can then, re-invest and recover even stronger. In the meantime, we recognize they still have a huge challenge ahead of them. When we look to the $300 million program that we put for our businesses that have being impacted for the restrictions, there is commercial rent relief up to 90% available for those who were impacted in hot zones like Peel and Toronto. We look at programs like Digital Main Street, a $57 million investment into businesses to help them go digital because their storefronts might have been closed. There are significant investments being made to try to get them through this very turbulent time that the pandemic has put forward all across the world. We want to be there to support them, because, as you said, Ontario is the economic engine of the entire country and the country is relying on us. We’re relying Ontario to get back on his feet’s and we’ve done a fairly good job. We lost over a million jobs at the start of COVID-19, we almost recovered over 800,000 of them by September. We are going to keep doing whatever is needed to keep support entrepreneurs and job creators and really give them the tools they need to be more successful in the future.
“I think one thing about the pandemic that has really brought forward some really good results is the collaboration between all three levels of government regardless of what political stripe you are”
MDC: The Ontario’s Action Plan was to protect, support and recover. People living in the GTA–many of them have lost their job recently, especially in the hospitality industry–are having a tough time living in the GTA, paying their bills with the money that they receive from social assistance. Food bank usage has gone through the roof and social agencies can hardly keep up with what I call “the new poverty”. We are aware of this suffering, and as an organization we also collect food and distribute to those in need. Going into 2021, we are facing a $32 billion deficit. How are you going to be able to reconcile both things so that people can still afford to live in Toronto and pay their basic needs without going hungry?
PSS: That’s a great question and when we look forward for into the next one or two years, the significant issue, not only for our government but for all governments, federal, provincial and municipal, is really this balance of priorities and how we get everybody back on their feet. At the outset of this pandemic, none of us really knew what we were up against. When we look back to March, in the months and weeks leading after that, some of us thought that one month later everything would be great. Summertime would come and we would be enjoying the summer but we know a lot more now than we knew before—hindsight is 20/20. What we can do is we can commit to investing in critical services like our health care system. We know that without a strong health care system we can’t have a real robust and strong economy. That is why for the first time ever our government has invested significantly into health care. Not only from a COVID-19 perspective but even just giving our hospitals, the tools they need, like $2,5 billion dollars extra in spending just to keep our hospitals operational. At the same time also trying to make sure our economy recovers stronger than ever before giving that foundational change to these businesses that allow them to pivot and allow them to keep manoeuvring. As we come out of this pandemic there will be change and there will be an opportunity for our government and others to help people whether it’s retool, whether it is adopt new skills and then get them into new jobs. I do think this is an undertaking that all three levels of government have to undertake collectively. I think one thing about the pandemic that has really brought forward some really good results is the collaboration between all three levels of government regardless of what political stripe you are, whether it’s been our government working with the municipal government, whether it’s been our government working with the federal government, I think we all collectively see one goal which is to ensure that we get the right supports necessary for the people of the province of Ontario, so they can get back on their feet; that we get the right supports for businesses, so they can get back on their feet; and I think that’s really critical having that vision, being able to work together, and then collectively invest in those areas that we think will bring back the best results for not only the people, but for our businesses, hospitals, infrastructure and our community programs which will definitely need it in the years and months to come.
MDC: The provincial government is working with the three levels of government to get through this crisis. Of course, the provincial government depends a lot on funding from federal government to come back to the province. Ontario is the biggest contributor to the federal government, and I don’t always think that it’s fair, that what comes back is “the fair amount”. Right now there is goodwill and a lot of nice words towards each other and that’s wonderful–I’m not sure it’s going to last but I think for the good of the country that’s probably a positive thing. Very soon I think the Liberals will probably have an election because they are a minority government and of course in two years the Conservatives will have an election. As a conservative, I’m not ashamed to say it, I’ve supported the Conservatives and Mr. Ford, do you think that this goodwill will continue for the good of the country? You know there have been rumblings that the federal government is tightening up its money policies as far as the loans and everything else that it is transferring to the provinces. How is the government going to deal with the sort of shortfall that may suddenly occur, let’s say in the spring, when the next federal election happens?
PSS: Our government allotted money into contingency funding. We’ve received money from the federal government, we have our own contingency funds so we’ve done a great job of making sure that we spend our money wisely. Before the pandemic I think one of the first things that Premier Ford did was really rein in what we call the party with the taxpayers’ money, and that was just be able to set us up for a situation like this. At that time of course none of us could have predicted COVID-19, but we could have predicted a potential recession. Could we have gone into times where economically we wouldn’t have been as strong as we are right now? So we had to do that planning in the first year as a government and I would say that it was the Premier’s leadership and vision and his attention to this long term planning, that really gives us an opportunity now to be able to spend more money and to be able to spend and invest when it’s needed. I say as fiscal Conservatives, as we look at anytime when an economy is growing it’s a time when we should be paying down our debt, lowering taxes, where we should be reinvesting into our economy and our jobs. But, if at that time, you’re actually not doing that, you’re not paying down your debt, but you keep increasing your costs, you keep piling on more debt, it’s not the best recipe for economic success. One of the things that our government did, was recognize that. I think a lot of people with the previous government did not appreciate that fact, and during the best economic of times and the biggest booms we were still running billions and billions of dollars of deficit that will only be paid off, by the future generations of this province. We were burdening our future generations to win elections or to put forward failed policies that never brought any meaningful results. Our government took a different approach right at the start, but it really did put us in a good position to be able to respond to a pandemic like we are today. I’m very confident that we have the supports and the fiscal tools needed, to continue supporting the province through this time. It’s a difficult period for people, we need to invest in health care, we have been investing in healthcare, we need to continue investing in small businesses like reducing their taxes, reducing their electricity costs–that will just make it more competitive for them put more money into their pockets.
MDC: On a positive note, the Conference Board of Canada is predicting a 5.2 increase in productivity for Ontario, for next year. I’m trying to visualize how that’s going to happen if COVID-19 continues restricting our activities and our businesses but that’s a positive fact.
PSS: Definitely and one of the really interesting facts is how we’ve been able to recover over the past months. More people work in manufacturing today than they did pre-COVID-19, so that’s a significant change and a direct implication of some of the policies of the Premier and our government have been able to put forward. It bodes well for Ontario and you look at the significant investments just in this last month. We’ve seen Ford make a $2 billion dollar investment to continue operations in Oakville; You’ve seen GM bringing another 1,700 jobs; Chrysler has invested not only at their Brampton facility but also in their Windsor facility. These are significant investments that companies are now making looking at the economic climate that will only help us as we go forward as a province, to make sure more people have high paying jobs, to make sure more people can work and I think that’s something to be proud of as a government. We have to recognize that there is still a long way ahead and there’s still a lot of industries and companies that are still going to be struggling and we need to help them.
MDC: You seem to be a very positive person, so go ahead and give a positive message of hope to the Portuguese community.
PSS: It’s an absolute honour once again to be able to be here to have this conversation and I truly believe that if we all work together and stick together, collectively as a community, we can get through anything, and COVID-19 is no different. It’s taken a significant toll on our families, on our social life and economic life, but you know as a government official, as someone who works with the government and with Premier Ford, no one cares more about getting this province back on track than the Premier himself and all of us that support him. We’re going to be there for all of you every step of the way. I must say I need to really commend the Portuguese community. I’ve seen so many initiatives during COVID-19 that they have been doing. The community leaders, like yourself have, taken up the cause of helping communities —whether it’s health care workers or front line community workers. You’ve just done an incredible job in the province of Ontario. The community has really stepped up to the plate and I really have to thank them for that. It makes me proud as a representative who has a large Portuguese community in his riding, I thank you for all that the community has done, not only for this province during this difficult time but in general as well.
Transcrição: Joana Leal