It was a busy day at Queen’s Park as the Lieutenant Governor delivered the Speech from the Throne, and then the Government of Ontario re-delivered the 2022 provincial budget. There were a few slight tweaks between the one delivered back in April and the one that now awaits passage nearly six months after the start of the Province’s fiscal year, but there was one particular point of interest that got the most attention.
The changes to the Ontario budget were pretty straightforward. The government under Premier Doug Ford has now promised $225 million for parents to assist school-aged kids to catch up on pandemic-caused gaps in their education. They also announced that they were fulfilling a campaign promise to increase Ontario Disability Support Program payments by five per cent starting in September.
“This is just one of the many ways our government is providing support to those who need it most,” said Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy. “From rent to groceries, we know families are feeling the impact of rising prices. That’s why we’re building on our plan by putting more money into the pockets of those who need it most.”
But many in the media who were attending Bethlenfalvy’s press conference disagreed with that statement. A five per cent increase to ODSP rates comes to $58 more per month, which means a single person will now get just over $1,200 in monthly support. This is a level of support that a group called the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC) said is “unlivable” in an open letter to the government last month.
“We made a commitment that we would address ODSP through the campaign, we’re delivering on that commitment, and we’re doing what we said we would do,” Bethlenfalvy said. “The question is what can we do for the people of Ontario that are the most vulnerable and this is a step in the right direction. This direction adjusts it to inflation and is in addition to the multiple programs and services that we have to support the most vulnerable.”
Bethlenfalvy was asked repeatedly if he could live on $1,200 per month, but he repeatedly avoided giving a direct answer.
“I understand that the environment is difficult and challenging, and that’s why we made a commitment to increase it by five per cent, and that’s why we made a commitment to adjust it to inflation. We’re one of only three provinces that are doing that,” Bethlenfalvy added. “Can we always do more? Absolutely. That’s what we’re here in government to do. This is the thing that we said we would do, and this is what the people of Ontario voted us to do.”
Critics of the government’s new budget direction agreed that the promise made during the campaign back in spring was never enough in the first place.
“Conditions are worsening across the province. A budget left unchanged since Spring 2022 is a budget that doesn’t meet the current needs of Ontarians,” said J.P. Hornick, the president of OPSEU in a statement.
“Two critical things have changed since this budget was written — we are now in a health care crisis, and inflation has exploded to well over eight per cent,” added NDP Finance critic and Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife in her own statement. “And since this budget was introduced, inflation has exploded. There is not one item in here to raise wages up, offer relief from high prices, or stand up to corporations that are using inflation as an excuse to gouge.”
Economic questions were also raised from the Speech of the Throne.
While the speech talked about fixing healthcare, improving recruitment to the labour force and building highways, some lines stuck out as possible warning signs of future austerity, lines like, “Amidst growing uncertainty, the road ahead will not always be easy” and “unprecedented spending throughout the pandemic has created new fiscal challenges […] that will require prudent economic management in the months and years to come.”
“That’s a message that we live in very uncertain economic times,” said Bethlenfalvy in response. “I’ve been in the private sector for over 30 years, and what I know is that you can never know what’s around the corner, but you can make sure that you have a plan, and make sure you communicate that plan very effectively. That’s what we’ve done in our budget.”
On his own statement on the Throne Speech, Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner noted that there was no mention about climate change, ending exclusionary zoning, or repealing Bill 124 in the budget, all of which, Schreiner said, are necessary moves to deal with the challenges facing Ontario.
“Instead the government has served up the same tired mixture of band-aid fixes and grand schemes that benefit wealthy land speculators to pave over the province’s precious farmland and natural beauty,” Schreiner said. “Premier Ford, it’s time to shift focus to the problems at hand and deliver the bold solutions the people of Ontario need.”