by Jim McDonell
MPP, Stormont, Dundas, South Glengarry
The year 2017 saw Ontario politics and policies undergo significant shake-ups. The government enacted Cap-and-Trade, a direct cost imposed on individuals and businesses to comply with a federally-mandated price on carbon. According to the Auditor-General, Ontario’s businesses will purchase $466 million of credits from California and Quebec by 2020, and $2.2 billion by 2030. This money will be siphoned out of Ontario’s economy to pay for carbon reductions elsewhere, affecting Ontario jobs.
We also saw action on electricity bills. The government launched the Fair Hydro Plan, which boils down to keeping over subsidized wind and solar generation and other inefficiencies, but borrowing heavily to spread their impact over a longer time. The Auditor-General says our hydro bills will still double, but now with an additional interest cost of between $45 and $93 billion over the next 32 years, depending on interest rates. Moreover, the government’s structuring of the program to keep this additional debt from appearing on the provincial balance sheet will cost ratepayers an extra $4 billion.
Education was also front and centre in Ontario in 2017. We witnessed the largest wave of public mobilization in recent memory to save rural schools. Thousands of residents of SDSG signed petitions and gave the Board their feedback, managing to reduce the planned closures from 12 to 3 schools, but communities still lost treasured schools such as North Stormont Public, Rothwell-Osnabruck Secondary and S.J. McLeod. It is time to review how we provide education outside of the large urban areas of Ottawa and Hamilton/Toronto. In the fall, the government failed to take a leadership role for students to avoid the lengthy college strike, the longest in Ontario’s history, which forced over 25,000 students to drop out and many more to face massive additional expenses as they struggled to recoup class time. For five weeks the government let colleges take the blame, but with Ontario contributing the least in the country to post-secondary education, who is really to blame?
Bill 148 caused intense debate during the second half of the year. Its reforms of Ontario’s labour market include a rapid increase in the minimum wage and other massive cost increases for employers. Businesses pleaded for more time to adapt, and independent studies projected job losses between 50,000 and 186,000. When the government realized the financial impact on municipalities and the political fallout of local property tax increases of up to 86%, they granted them an exemption for emergency services. Unfortunately, small and medium businesses were not heard. Government members patronizingly told small business owners that if they cannot raise their prices to cover extra costs, they should consider whether they should be operating a business at all. After the rising costs of hydro, needless regulations, and taxes, Bill 148 is just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Independent officers of the legislature repeatedly called out the government over their questionable accounting. In December, the Financial Accountability Officer reaffirmed the Auditor-General’s concerns, that the government was concealing the deficit from the public, and claims of a balanced budget are inaccurate. He projected a $4 billion deficit this year, rising to $9.8 billion by 2021. As the Official Opposition, we called on the government to release their Pre-Election Report, so that the Auditor-General has sufficient time to report back on the fiscal health of the province before June’s election. It is required by law and Ontarians deserve to know before they cast their ballot.
As 2017 comes to an end, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018.