Chairman's Desk

2021 Ontario Budget: Insights and Analysis

For Ontarians, this week has been a stark reminder of just how truly unalike their provincial and federal governments are. For Premier Ford, that may be very welcome news.

On the one hand, we awoke on Tuesday to news that federal Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland will table her first full budget since taking on the role—and the government’s first in two years—on April 19.

On the other, Ontario’s minister of finance, Peter Bethlenfalvy was delivering his first budget as well, the third fiscal update provided by the province since COVID-19 began last spring.

It is a remarkable study in contrasts that speaks volumes about each government’s political priorities. For the Ford government, accountability and transparency are the hallmark of their appeal to voters, but they have also focused squarely on their core competencies within their jurisdiction – investing in health care and education.

The federal Liberals, alternatively, have focused more on delivering big ticket items throughout their pandemic response.

Unsurprisingly, the differences did not end there.

In “finishing the job” they began last year, Ford and Bethlenfalvy have tried to strike a difficult balance between fiscal stewardship and pandemic response until vaccines are in every single arm. To do so, they’ve tabled a budget that relies on a measured approach, bolstered by claims to focus specifically on the “lives and livelihoods” its title invokes.

Not only does the budget commit multi-billion-dollar spending to vaccine rollout, hospitals, testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, and long-term care, but it also makes a concerted effort to shore up funding for business supports, skills training, and parental supports.

These commitments will be crucial at a time when many Ontarians are experiencing cognitive dissonance between the good news they’re hearing and the less rosy facts on the ground. We have a way to go yet—and investments likes these will be the ones carrying us over the finish line.

The same goes for additional investments in long-term care and their ambitious commitments to provide 30,000 new long-term care beds over 10 years. True to his record, Bethlenfalvy wants to be seen not as delivering one-offs but rather making capital investments that will pay off in the long run.

To be sure, the spending taps are open (to the tune of $190.3 billion this past fiscal year) but they are flowing less freely or widely than those in Ottawa. It’s a difference in approach that Canadians will notice, and the Ford government is betting that Ontarians will appreciate the value of their method.

Don’t expect them to play on the contrast, however. Having watched Trudeau for the past few months, Premier Ford is keenly aware that Canadians have no appetite for divisive politicking until the pandemic has been managed and decisively put to bed by mass vaccination.

Instead, expect Ford to let his government’s approach speak for itself. And once the vast majority of Ontarians have been vaccinated in the fall, expect the Premier and his cabinet to launch a full recovery plan in the form of an election budget to carry them into the next campaign.

The good news is that until then, they have committed to doing and spending more than enough to keep Ontario afloat.

As for the deficit—Bethlenfalvy has conceded that it will be with us for a decade at least and he will certainly not be alone among governments, not only across the country but around the world, in that legacy.

That will be cause for fiscal hawks to gripe, but at the end of the day, the Tories can argue: who better than Ford and his team to chip away at that deficit?

All they will to need to do so, they can conveniently claim, is four more years.