Premier Doug Ford’s beleaguered government will try to turn the page on its rocky past year Wednesday with a budget update that is expected to aim for a sunnier tone.
Finance Minister Rod Phillips delivers Ontario’s fall economic statement in the afternoon and will announce a lower deficit for the 2019-20 fiscal year than the $10.3 billion shortfall projected in the spring budget.
That budget was tabled in April by Phillips’s predecessor Vic Fedeli, who was demoted from the finance portfolio barely two months later.
Last year’s fall economic statement marked the beginning of the cuts that have characterized Ford’s government and contributed to his slide in the polls. The PCs scrapped the province’s environmental commissioner and French language services watchdog.
This year’s version “will not be full of cuts,” a senior government official told CBC News on Tuesday. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the overall approach of Wednesday’s budget update will be “slow and steady, showing that we know what we’re doing, that there’s a steady hand at the wheel.”
A former insider who maintains close ties to the government believes the statement will form part of a shift in emphasis from Ford’s PCs.
“What I expect is this new, pragmatic, moderate approach we’re seeing from Premier Ford and his government is going to be cemented in law with the fall economic statement,” said David Tarrant, a vice president of the public relations firm Enterprise Canada.
Tarrant, who was Ford’s strategic communications director until May, helped craft the PCs’ 2018 campaign platform, and previously worked for Stephen Harper when he was prime minister. He anticipates the budget update will send a new message to groups that “have felt like they were at odds with this government.”
That message: “If you’re prepared to work co-operatively with the government, the government’s actually prepared to move on some of the positions it has taken in the past and find common ground,” said Tarrant.
“Hopefully some of these groups actually will take up the offer.”
Ford and his behind-the-scenes team are trying to portray the government as setting a new tone since the premier emerged from his self-imposed exile during the federal election campaign and the Legislature resumed from its longer-than-usual adjournment. The government has also walked back some of its cuts.
The change “is about more than just decorum in the Legislature; this is about pursuing a policy agenda that’s actually about building Ontario together,” said Tarrant.
At a news conference Monday, Ford hinted at the theme of the budget update, standing behind a podium labelled “Building Ontario Together.”
The phrase is strikingly similar to the title of the previous Liberal government’s 2015 budget: “Building Ontario Up.”
Although Ontario’s steady run of economic growth began well before Ford took office in June of last year, he’s happy to take credit.
“The economic success we have achieved so far is absolutely incredible,” said Ford in question period Tuesday.
“Our province is absolutely booming right now. We haven’t seen unemployment numbers like this, so low, in decades, because we’ve created the environment for companies to thrive and prosper and grow within this province.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is unconvinced that Ford’s PCs are truly charting a new path.
“The tone makes no difference whatsoever. It’s the pain that everyday families are feeling with the cuts that this government’s been implementing,” Horwath said in an interview Tuesday.
“It took a couple days for people to look at the fine print to realize that in fact it was exactly the opposite,” she said.
“It was a heavily devastating budget when it came to cuts.”
‘The song remains the same’
“While there’s an effort to change the tone, the song remains the same,” said John Fraser, the Liberal interim leader, in a news conference Tuesday.
“The premier’s cut-first, think-later approach to governing just doesn’t work,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner on Tuesday. “We’ll see if they back off on some of the cuts that are directed at the most vulnerable.”
What’s most unclear is how the budget update will deal with two key pressure points facing the Ford government in its two biggest-spending ministries, health and education.
The latest figures show Ontario’s hallway-healthcare problem is not getting any better, as the province heads into flu season, which is always an added strain on hospitals.
Contract talks with Ontario’s two biggest teachers unions are at an impasse and the government could be facing province-wide teacher strikes later this month.