By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
With a provincial election a little more than a year away, the Ontario Liberals pulled out all the stops in its latest spending plan.
The 2017 provincial budget, which the Liberals say is its first balanced budget in nearly a decade, will see $141 billion in new spending, with highlights including free prescription drug coverage for all residents under the age of 25, the introduction of recently announced measures intended to get housing prices under control, increased healthcare spending and changes to student loan programs.
However, based on what she’s seen, Oshawa MPP Jennifer French took to Shakespeare to express what the NDP sees in this budget.
“It seemed to be much ado about nothing leading up to it, and that’s what we’re hearing from the community,” she says.
French says that the Liberals have not gone far enough in this budget to fix what many see as broken in Ontario.
“This is a budget I think people were anticipating and expecting to be a campaign-style budget, full of promises and what not, and it kind of fell short of what people were expecting. That’s what we’ve been hearing,” she says.
“If we don’t actually make some of those big changes, we are going to find ourselves unable to build that secure future for the next generation and for our youth. It was disappointing in that regard. There was a lot that was missing in this that I think we were hopeful we would see.”
Among those measures not going far enough, French says, is the Liberals’ pharmacare program for the province’s youth. The $465-million program, which will come into effect in 2018, was announced just days after the NDP unveiled its plan, which would cover a limited number of prescription medications – those the World Health Organization has deemed essential – but would be for everyone.
“The NDP had brought forward their pharmacare program, so then everyone was watching with interest when the government brought forward their budget and then rolled out their pharmacare program,” she says.
“While it’s welcome to see children and youth would be covered, it’s again so disappointing to realize that 2.2 million Ontarians are not going to be covered, and that’s a shame and a real missed opportunity.”
Whitby-Oshawa MPP Lorne Coe, meanwhile, says that while the Liberals increased spending on healthcare – an extra $7 billion over the next three years – it falls short of where spending levels should be.
“After freezing hospital budgets for four straight years, they’re finally trying to play catch-up. And they finally have listened to people, particularly in the Region of Durham, and they’re starting to invest some money in hospital budgets. In the case of Lakeridge Health and the Ontario Shores Mental Health Facility…those facilities are now playing catch-up,” he tells The Oshawa Express.
“I’m going to be monitoring very carefully the effect of what they announced today and how it’s going to be implemented and when the money is going to be released because at the end of the day, this is affecting frontline delivery to patient care. I think right now, what they’re doing, particularly in the investment of healthcare, they’re just throwing some window dressing on their failures. And it’s obvious. They’re throwing window dressing on their failures in an election year.”
Coe, who sits as the Progressive Conservatives’ critic on post-secondary education, says that while the Liberals made some headway on addressing concerns around careers training – they announced $190 million over the next three years for high school and college students to access co-op programs to better prepare them for the workforce – they still fall well short of the mark.
“On one level, I’m pleased to see they’re following our call and my call for more investments in graduating classes for the jobs of tomorrow, and I’ve talked about this in other venues about the skills mismatch and the effect it has had on the economy. But this government, over the last 14 years, has failed to address the skills gap and right now, we’re still graduating students for jobs that don’t exist. It needs urgent action,” he says.
“It requires more of a robust approach than what this government has taken in this budget.”
With the Liberals sliding in the polls – a March Forum Research poll found them sitting in third with 19 per cent support – French says the government had the chance to show they are the party to look to in next year’s provincial election. And at that, she says, they failed.
“This budget, every budget, is always a chance to start fresh or for a government to prove to Ontarians that they’ve been listening. I think they had a chance to undo some of the damage when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to education, and they didn’t take that chance,” she says.
“It’s sort of like an ostrich that’s buried its head in the sand – it’s like they haven’t been answering their phones and hearing from Ontarians what it is they specifically need.”
This is clearly a budget that’s looking ahead to the election. There’s a lot of promises, some of which go beyond 2018,” Coe says.
“They go out into the future, whether it’s infrastructure or investment in schools or investment in healthcare or childcare – these are longer term investments over a period of time. Going forward, this is clearly an election budget, but the challenges that have been there for a long time that I’ve talked about, they still exist. And they have no plan in terms of how they’re going to address those.”