Ontario’s Minister of Finance Peter Bethlenfalvy released the province’s 2021 Fall Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review today titled “Build Ontario.” More commonly known as the Fall Economic Statement (FES), today’s fiscal update serves as the precursor to the Ford Government’s 2022 Budget, which many expect to be a full-fledged party platform ahead of the June provincial election. It also presents a unique opportunity for the Premier to cater to his party’s fiscal conservative demographic once again, something he’s seemingly struggled to do during the pandemic.
In addition to providing an update on Ontario’s deficit number, which is surprisingly projected to be $21.5 billion in 2021-22 ($11.6 billion lower than the outlook from the 2021 Budget), the FES also includes a review of recent government investments and preview of upcoming government priorities.
Touting Ontario’s status as one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the world and with a provincial COVID-19 case count of 438 today, this is the first time in nearly two years the Ford government has been able to home in on their plans to reinvigorate Ontario’s economy and build it back stronger. Today’s announcement was a critical pivot from an all COVID-19, all the time agenda and the Ford Government was finally able to provide a sneak peek into what the “new normal” will look like for Ontarians just in time for the upcoming June election.
NATIONAL’s first take
Our initial analysis is as follows:
- Healthcare remains top of mind and central to provincial spending heading into an election year. With the sheer significance of funding allocated toward the province’s health and long-term care system, all signs point towards the Premier putting further pressure on his federal counterpart to increase Ontario’s Canada Health Transfer funding.
- There is a pronounced focus on Ontario’s working class throughout the FES, which aligns well with Premier Ford’s affordability agenda, which was a critical factor in his party’s 2018 election win.
- Ontario’s rural and northern communities are back in the fold, with several commitments focused on improving access to infrastructure and unlocking economic opportunity in all regions across the province. From expanding Ontario’s highway connectivity to amending the Far North Act to funding the road to the Ring of Fire and from improving community infrastructure to enabling high-speed Internet access, there is a clear push from the PC government to appeal to its northern demographic, one that contributed strongly to their first term victory.
- The province has given the green light to two GTA highway projects, the Bradford Bypass which would connect Highway 400 and Highway 404, and Highway 413 which would help alleviate congestion the York, Peel and Halton Regions. This decision is sure to earn them stern criticism from opposition, as it did earlier this year, largely due to whether these routes were planned to benefit allies of Premier Doug Ford, how much time they will actually save commuters and the potential impacts to the environment.
Protecting our progress
“While we have come so far, the threats of this progress are real.”
Key initiatives to protect Ontario against COVID-19 include:
- $3.1 billion in 2021-22 to support 3,100 new and additional hospital beds
- $342 million investment to add new and upskill over 5,000 nurses and 8,000 personal support workers
- $548.5 million over three years to expand home and community care
- Extend the Senior’s Home Tax Credit to 2022, providing an estimated $35 million to 32,000 seniors
- Additional $3.7 billion, beginning in 2024-25, to build 10,000 net new long-term care beds and upgrade 12,000 beds (bringing the total investment in long-term care beds since 2019 to $6.4 billion)
- Additional $72.3 million over three years to increase long-term care enforcement capacity and doubling the number of inspectors by 2022-23
- $1.6 billion to protect schools against COVID-19
“We are ready to build bigger, we are ready to build faster and better than before.”
The Ontario PCs say they have a plan to get Ontario’s economy “firing on all cylinders” again, and their plan to do that includes key infrastructure investments, including:
- $2.6 billion investment to build, expand and repair highways and bridges through the Ontario Highways Program, keenly highlighting the commitment to build and advance the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413
- Committing $1 billion to build the all-season road network to the Ring of Fire, as the PCs refer to as the “corridor to prosperity,” asking the federal government to match their investment, also citing the key critical mineral deposits in the region
- Doubling the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund program, which is available to Ontario’s 424 small, rural, and northern communities, to $2 billion over the next five years
- $30.2 billion investment over 10 years to build, expand and enhance hospitals across the province
- $28.5 billion to build the Ontario Line, the three-stop Scarborough Subway Extension, the Yonge North Subway Extension connecting to York Region, and the Eglinton Crosstown West Extension
- Taking further action to look into the business case for Northeastern Passenger Rail connecting Toronto to Timmins, previously committing $5 million to support this feasibility work
- Additional $1.7 billion for the Hamilton Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, bringing total Ontario support to $3.4 billion
- $14 billion over 10 years to build and improve schools (this includes the $600 million for the 2021-2022 initiative to upgrade school ventilation systems)
- $1 billion over five years to create 30,000 licensed child-care spaces
- $4 billion over six years to connect every region of Ontario to high-speed Internet by 2025 (announced in March 2021)
Working for workers:
“Our government wants workers to race to the top, not race to the bottom.”
Key initiatives for workers and economic growth:
- The recent $15/hour minimum wage announcement which will come into effect on January 1, 2022. This also applies to liquor servers, who previously had a special minimum wage and were previously making $12.55/hour.
- $1.1 million investment in 2021-22 to support dedicated inspections of temporary help agencies and recruiters for migrant workers
- New province-wide, two-year $40 million “Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Competitiveness” stream as a part of the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade’s Regional Development Program
- Renewing the Ontario “Staycation” Tax Credit for the 2022 fiscal year
- Extending the Ontario Jobs and Training Tax Credit to 2022, saving approximately 240,000 Ontarians $1,150 on their training and retraining costs
How opposition is reacting
With the provincial election under a year away, opposition parties have come out strongly against today’s fiscal update and are already asking for increased spending to support small businesses and further investments in the healthcare sector, as they try to recover from the last two years.
Shortly after the release of the FES, the leader of the official opposition, NDP leader Andrea Horwath, held a press conference where she stated, “The cost of everything is going up for Ontarians. The cost of housing, electricity, gas, childcare, auto insurance rates, and more. Yet this budget update seems to ignore all of those problems.” Horwath also questioned the political motivations behind the plan to build the Bradford bypass and Highway 413, stating she is not opposed to highways but believes they should be built for the right reasons.
The Ontario Liberal Party leader, Steven Del Duca, noted that the FES failed to address the topics of vaccine mandates, support for small businesses, and the $10 per day cost of childcare. Del Duca also stated that if elected the Ontario Liberals would cancel Highway 413 and spend that money on schools.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner expressed his disappointment with the absence of environment and climate change references within the FES, with “climate” being mentioned a grand total of four times.
Both the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and Toronto Mayor John Tory released statements applauding the provincial government for acknowledging the work of municipal partners and investing in municipalities.
NATIONAL will continue to monitor political and industry reactions and provide further updates. As always, our team of public affairs experts are available to provide further insights and analysis on today’s announcement and how it impacts your organization.
——— Sydney Stonier is a former Manager at NATIONAL Public Relations