Dazed and confused

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The Ford government has had to do a major climb down on some of their budget proposals after meeting stern opposition from the general public, municipalities, teachers’ unions, and people in the healthcare field. Just as well, too, because the charges and changes they had tried to impose on those sectors of the community would have had serious consequences in so many fields. But the basic problem the provincial budget was trying to address remains the same.

How do we, as a province, deal with a debt of $347 billion? That requires that we find $1 billion every single month just to pay the interest on that gigantic figure. And that means $1 billion less for, as Premier Ford says, “hiring more front-line emergency workers, lowering taxes or paying down the debt”. This goes well beyond party politics, and there is no question that the previous Liberal governments have thoroughly messed up the province’s finances.

But we are where we are, to put it simply, and something will have to give, somewhere along the line. Ontarians have become used to a certain level of public services, and it will not be easy to adapt to the new circumstances the debt imposes on all of us. While I hate quoting Doug Ford about anything, he does make a very valid point when he says: “We believe that every government needs to step up and do its part: there is only one tax-payer, and the job of finding savings while protecting core services rests with every elected official in Ontario”.

There was something interesting about this reversal by the Premier, and that was the role played by Steve Clark. Our local MPP, also Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in Ford’s government, was credited by Ford, and others, with having been an important influence on the decision. Naturally, as Minister responsible for municipalities, and as a one-time Mayor of Brockville, Steve could easily understand the impact of the downloading that was envisioned in the original budget measures.

But I think there was more to it than that. From the time Ford got elected and chose Steve Clark to be in his cabinet, I was expecting problems to arise between the two of them. Not that Steve would not be a loyal member of Doug Ford’s government; he has integrity and honour, so that was not my concern. It was, rather, that the two men come from very different wings of the Conservative movement generally. Considering the strong support Steve has shown for things like libraries, the Ferguson Forest Centre, and education in this riding, and in North Grenville specifically, it just didn’t seem right when Ford made such damaging cuts in those areas.

These did not seem the kind of policies that a man with Steve Clark’s record would have been expected to support. Cabinet solidarity is vital, but it does seem that Steve has come out, if not in opposition to the budget measures as they affected municipalities, but at least as a strong voice in favour of ameliorating the impact of the cuts, at least in the short term.

I am sure that writing such things will not please Steve himself. He will not condone suggestions that there could be any divergence of opinion, much less ideology, between himself and the Premier. But the facts are there. I do not see Steve Clark being comfortable with some of the more obviously artificial elements of the Ford government’s public marketing.

There are certain slogans that appear in every government announcement or event: “Ontario’s Government for the People” is one. Not only does it sound more likely to be used by the NDP than the Tories, it just rings hollow. Likewise, “Open for Business”, “Promise Made, Promise kept”, and others. These just do not seem natural, they seem clumsy and awkward in the mouths of “real” people.

But, behind all of the internal dynamics of the Ford regime, there is the abiding fact of the debt and what will be done to deal with it. Small and rural municipalities have been given $200 million to come up with ways to make cuts of 4% in their budgets for next year.

Considering how upset residents of North Grenville were when their taxes went up by 6% a few years ago, this cut will be a big challenge to our council and staff.

So far, they have shown themselves to be creative and conscientious in their financial responsibilities. There is less fiscal uncertainty this year, and the hope is that the challenge put to them by the provincial government can be met with s similar sense of conscientious responsibility. Yes, there is only one tax-payer, whatever the level of government in Ontario. We are the purse they dip into to pay for the services we have come to expect. But the real challenge faced by everyone is to live up to the slogan (another one!) which the Ford government used as a title for their budget: “Protecting What Matters Most”. Let’s hope we can all agree on what those things are.

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