Thursday, March 29, 2018

Caught in the crossfire -- Childcare and the Ontario budget

Budget day in Ontario this year was unlike any other in recent memory not simply due to the budget's contents or due to the government announcements and legislation of the last few months, but also due to the circumstances that see a tremendous threat from the hard right for the first time since 1995.

The surprising and unexpected elevation of Doug Ford to the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives has placed his party in stark contrast to a Wynne Liberal government that has begun to change and propose legislation more progressive than any that we have in the province or, indeed, in much of the country, in recent memory.

In addition to the dramatic raising of the minimum wage to $14 an hour in January (set to reach $15 an hour next year should the Liberals or NDP win) and the most sweeping, positive reforms to labour laws in Ontario since the Rae years, the new budget and recent announcements by the Liberal government include some fairly significant moves and concessions.

These include a pledge to cut GO Transit fares substantially for many riders, to expand OHIP+ to include seniors, to bring in a fairly mild version of dental coverage for Ontarians without insurance (a plan significantly less interesting than the ONDP's proposed one), to invest in more home care for seniors and greater investments in healthcare over all. There is also spending on infrastructure, a tax increase on higher income earners, a high speed railway line to be be built between Toronto and Windsor starting with the connection to London, and a variety of other steps.

Most importantly the budget proposes one of the most radical pledges by a Canadian government on any level recently -- the introduction of free childcare for all children from the age of 2 1/2 until they get into the all day kindergarten system that the Liberals introduced years ago. It also includes money to create thousands of additional childcare spaces.

This program plank is an astonishing victory for activists who have worked for decades in this area, it is a huge victory for women, and it is a genuinely important advance on a front where we have seen defeat after defeat after defeat,

Does the program go far enough? No. But it goes much further than anyone anticipated the Liberals would even a few days ago. The significance of this victory, if it is implemented, should not be underestimated.

Ford's response to the budget was predictable and inane, with either he or his various underlings babbling on about "spending other people's money", the deficit and how these new programs would leave a legacy of debt to the province that would outweigh their benefits -- an assertion that is absurd other than to the most die hard reactionary. He also all, notably, refused to say what the Tories would do instead on these various fronts, as clearly they plan to axe virtually all of this spending and, if Ford actually wins and proceeds to cut taxes and eliminate the carbon tax, instead imitate a deep austerity program.

As economist Jim Stanford has noted:
With no carbon tax, and no concrete plan for “efficiency” savings, how will Mr. Ford square that same circle?
Arithmetically, he has three options: increase taxes; tolerate a deficit; or cut spending. At door one, Mr. Ford could seek other sources of tax revenue. That’s a non-starter, given his rhetoric about long-suffering taxpayers. Door two is to tolerate deficits, converting lost carbon-tax revenue and the likely failure of the efficiency audit into higher debt. That also clashes painfully with Mr. Ford’s pledge to wrestle the debt to the ground.
Almost certainly, Mr. Ford will choose door number three: still-deeper cuts in provincial spending. He needs $10-billion in cuts over three years to offset carbon tax revenue; $6-billion more to meet the efficiency target; and still more to pay for any additional tax cut promises. All that’s on top of $1.9-billion in annual spending cuts from cancelling cap and trade. All told, he will need to cut spending by close to $25-billion over three years – and around $10-billion in the third year alone. Cuts of this magnitude would significantly damage government services (all the more so given continual inflation and population growth).
Ten billion dollars a year is a major chunk of purchasing power: more than 1 per cent of provincial GDP. We don’t know, of course, the precise composition of the cuts, but they would inevitably include a combination of direct staff and program delivery, income-support programs, and private-sector activity (including the cancelled cap-and-trade projects). And that’s just the direct first-order impact. Cuts this big would also spill into consumer spending and other forms of aggregate demand.
Moreover, reducing provincial spending by more than 1 per cent of GDP cannot but have a parallel impact on provincial labour markets. It is reasonable to expect job losses (both direct with government, and indirect via private-sector actors also affected by the austerity) to total at least 1 per cent of Ontario employment: or around 75,000 lost jobs. 
It would seem that a Ford administration would mean not simply that these changes do not proceed, but also that we would see deep, deep cuts.

The ONDP response is a lot harder to understand both tactically and ethically. Its official response, even though it contains some valid criticisms of a couple of the budget's aspects, simply ignores or dismisses much of the budget altogether and, stunningly, does not mention the childcare planks at all.  The "line" seems to be that none of this is going to happen anyway and that the Liberals had 15 years and are only doing this now as an election ploy. This was reflected by ONDP critic and MPP Peter Tabuns on CBC Radio this morning.

This response is deeply problematic for a number of reasons.

As Nora Loreto noted on Medium:
The childcare announcement was broadly embraced by childcare activists (in stark contrast to various tuition fee scheme announcements), and for good reason: promising to give free childcare to children 2.5 years and older is a radical change. Ontario needs this.
Rather than welcome the announcement and then promise to take it further, NDP activists have mostly spent their time deriding the Liberals: they’re liars and cheats, they can’t be trusted, and so on. This is all true. However, what about the promise of free childcare? What happens when the NDP ignores a historic announcement to take pot shots at the Liberals? It makes us cynical. It makes us tune out.
And what’s very dangerous: it makes it sound like free childcare is an unreasonable, impossible demand.
The ONDP so far, instead of promising "to take it further" on what is a tremendously important program proposal, appear to be attacking the Liberals on other fronts and hoping that people believe it is all some big Liberal con job, which in the case of the childcare platform is more than a bit of a stretch.

But further, while the ONDP can drone on about how the Liberals "had 15 years" they can only do so if they are certain that all of us have a terrifically short -- though convenient for the ONDP -- political memory.

Because, of course, it is not simply the Liberals who had many years to put forward a really progressive, left wing agenda for Ontario -- so had Andrea Horwath and her crew who have led the party since 2009.

In that time they have provided, overall, by far the most right wing leadership in the provincial party's history. The Horwath NDP even backed the two worst budgets of the Liberal era, the austerity budgets of 2012-2013 when the ONDP held the balance of power.

Were they asking for pharmacare, $15 now, dental care, or anything like that then? No. In fact the big "concession" for supporting the 2013 budget was the creation of a Financial Accountability Office.

Seriously. If you don't remember it, look it up.

Did the ONDP under this same leader run on higher minimum wages or anything remotely like a left platform in 2014? No. In fact they directly repudiated the calls by the $14 NOW (at the time) movement and called for a $12 minimum wage. Horwath and crew, presumably seeking partisan advantage, were also conspicuously absent when the Liberals were under attack late last year and in January for their large minimum wage increase and their labour law reforms.

The Liberals are a tired, often seemingly corrupt Bay St. party whose initiatives and shifts of late reflect a combination of cynicism and a fear by a certain wing of the "progressive" bourgeoisie of losing power to a more rapacious vision of neo-liberalism, yet it is hard to see how Horwath and the ONDP are any less cynical or calculated here.

Caught in the crossfire of all this may be the best childcare plan proposed by a government in North America in a very long time. And that would be a terrible missed opportunity that the left must mobilize to try to ensure does not happen.

Further Readings:

Rehabilitating Andrea Horwath's leadership and the danger of a short political memory

If Doug Ford won, what does it mean for Ontario?

Horwath's campaign announcement a failure to differentiate for the ONDP

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