Twenty-five years ago today, on June 8, 1995, the people of Ontario elected one Michael Deane Harris as premier.
Harris’s program, the “Common Sense Revolution,” changed Ontario overnight. He slashed program spending. He slashed social assistance. He slashed taxes.
Thousands lost their jobs. Others became homeless. Many died. It’s all in the history books – you could look it up.
One of Mike Harris’s loyal foot soldiers was Doug Ford, Sr., MPP for Etobicoke-Humber and father of our current premier. On the anniversary of Harris’s win, and just two years from the next election, it’s worth asking: When it comes to policy, is Doug Ford, Jr. like Mike Harris?
When the current pandemic started, it didn’t sound like it.
“I will spare no expense, no expense at all to make sure we take care of the people’s health and the economy of this province,” he said back then.
But in mid-March, when other big provinces rushed to get money to workers in need, Ford sat on his hands, waiting for the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to kick in.
When municipalities cried for help with plunging revenues and soaring expenses, Ford appealed to a higher power: “We’ll have to wait and see what the federal government comes up with because it’s going to be a big, big ticket,” he said.
As seniors continued to die in long-term care and the Canadian Armed Forces revealed the abysmal state of care in several nursing homes, Ford dodged again. To hear the premier tell it, the once-great province of Ontario can’t afford to maintain even the most basic standards in our nursing homes.
“We need the Prime Minister’s help to fix this problem because no province can do this alone,” he told. “I’d like to sit down with the federal government and I need them at the table. We need their financial support, to be very blunt.”
If municipalities are going to keep delivering vital services, if we are going to fix long-term care, if we are going to restart the economy, we will need to spend money. Much of that money will be borrowed, and the federal government can borrow money for next to nothing or—through the Bank of Canada—for actually nothing. So a federal cash infusion to help provinces and municipalities makes sense.
If I were the prime minister, though, I’d find it hard to accept that rich provinces like Ontario do not have the primary responsibility to fund services under their jurisdiction.
This is especially true in areas where the pandemic did not so much cause the problems as reveal them.
It is a fact that the Ford government inherited the disaster that is long-term care; it is also a fact that it did nothing to fix it. Instead of pouring money into critical areas—health, post-secondary education, the climate crisis, social assistance, the list is long—the premier chose, like Harris before him, to cut taxes.
Tax cuts brought in by Ford since his election two years ago were costing the province roughly $4 billion a year when COVID-19 hit. Sadly, that is merely the latest dose of bad medicine for Ontario’s finances.
Ontario is in rough shape today because, for a generation, we have refused to properly fund public services. Harris campaigned on tax cuts, he delivered tax cuts, and provincial finances have never recovered. If, prior to COVID-19, Ontario had been raising and spending money at the average rate per capita of the other provinces, we would have been spending $29 billion more a year—close to 20% more than we do. Our public services would be stronger. Our people would be healthier. And the debt Ford rails against would no doubt be smaller.
To live up to its responsibilities, Ontario must raise revenues.
The orthodox conservative view is that you can’t raise taxes in a recession because it will hurt the economy. But if tax money raised is immediately spent on programs, it actively helps the economy. As Premier Ford looks ahead, he would do well to look back—past the failures of Harris—and heed the lessons of earlier premiers, including Conservative premiers, who faced their own big problems, came up with bold solutions, and built Ontario.
In 1936, deep in Depression debt and with Unemployment Relief (as it was called) eating up a quarter of revenues, Liberal premier and treasurer Mitch Hepburn introduced the provincial income tax. In 1961, in the grip of a recession, Conservative treasurer James N. Allan brought in the provincial sales tax.
“We must face up to realities,” Allan said. “The program we have announced is designed to promote expansion and increase employment. If we forego the revenue from our sales tax, we must cut back on our services, our capital works and our assistance to municipalities and school boards. I think you will agree that at this time—when the pace of our economy has slackened— we need courage, vision, enterprise and bold action.”
The tax policies that got Ontario out of the Depression and set the stage for a 40-year economic expansion were based on good-sense principles: if you want to grow, you have to build. If you want to build, you have to pay for it. That means taxing and spending in a way that is smart and fair.
And yes, we can afford to do it, even in a pandemic.
While millions of Ontarians have been hit hard by COVID-19, not everyone has. Nationally, half of those earning less than $16 an hour have lost work and wages to COVID-19, but those earning over $48 an hour have actually gained employment. Even in a deep recession, governments can find ways to raise money to strengthen public services and rebuild economies. As Conservative treasurer J.D. Monteith said in 1928, “money collected as taxes does not lie idle. The leaders in finance and the captains of industry may mourn taxation, but the fact remains that these moneys are all again returned to the people in various public services.”
Despite the views of Mike Harris and others like him, money raised in taxes does not disappear into thin air. Done properly, it is the foundation for better lives and better livelihoods.
While Harris has done just fine for himself—he’s now a rich “captain of industry” who chairs the board of a long-term care company—the era that began with his election has been an unmitigated disaster. Twenty-five years since his election, it’s time for a new, progressive era in Ontario finance.
That’s the lesson of history for Doug Ford, Jr.
Randy Robinson is Ontario Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow him on Twitter at @RandyFRobinson.