Chairman's Desk

We may yet be thankful for ‘Premier Scrooge’

Last week, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer came out with another report, this one finding $12 billion in COVID funds apparently unspent by the province. This latest report, which looked at the second quarter, follows on a previous first-quarter FAO report that found the province had $6.7 billion in unspent pandemic funds.

Both reports predictably spawned days, even weeks of breathless sound bites on radio and television, tut tut editorials in newspapers and smart-ass quips on social media.

“MPPs should be staying at the legislature and working to use the $12 billion in COVID funding Doug Ford has been withholding from the people of Ontario,” tweeted Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath, before Queen’s Park rose for the holiday break.

Bereft of an imagination and resorting to the most tiresome cliché, the Liberals shared a graphic that labelled Doug Ford “Premier Scrooge.” Steven del Duca, their leader, charged that the premier had “hoarded $12 billion in funding that should have been used to save lives,” and asked, “How can Doug Ford justify this callous budgeting to families who’ve lost a parent or grandparent to COVID-19?”

The problem with this criticism of the Ford government’s pandemic response spending is that it is both short-sighted and fiscally reckless. Would Horwath and Del Duca prefer the government to have spent the entire envelope in the first leg of what everyone knows will be a marathon journey?

Surely no Ontario family that spent all of their reserve funds within the first or second quarter of the pandemic would be applauding themselves for responsible financial management. And they certainly wouldn’t be applauding a government that did the same.

Far from sitting atop these funds like Smaug, as the Opposition would have you believe, the Ford government has already allocated 80 per cent of the funds in question through its budget. While these allocations might shift, as the pandemic elevates new priorities and presents new challenges, at least the province has delivered a budget. That’s more than can be said for the federal Liberals, who (like many other provincial governments) have relied on vague economic updates to outline their spending plans.

This partisan criticism of Ontario’s spending does us no favours. What we really need now, as a province and as a country, is an honest year-end conversation about the fiscal impact of COVID-19.

In that regard, FAO Peter Weltman is deserving of praise — his reports are insightful precisely because of their narrow focus. His conduct stands in stark contrast to the auditor general, whose mission creep and general inability to stay in her lane has been well-covered in the pages of this newspaper.

All public servants whose job it is to account for the expenditure of public funds will, appropriately, be under scrutiny in the time ahead. Statistically speaking, some degree of fraud, mismanagement, abuse or cronyism is inevitable. After all, in an astonishingly short window of time, COVID has resulted in the biggest outlays of government spending in memory. The province has spent (or plans to spend) some $45 billion on COVID-related issues, while the feds have spent more than $322 billion in related relief.

But even as Ford is condemned for underspending, the federal government is finding that as they go, they may have overspent or underprojected. Already the $322 billion sum is more than double the figure projected at the outset of the pandemic in March.

And just this week, the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer found that some of Ottawa’s signature COVID relief programs, such as the emergency wage subsidy, will turn out to be vastly more expensive than anticipated. In the fall economic update, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland predicted the subsidy would cost some $16.2 billion. The PBO has revised that number upwards to $85.5 billion.

This most recent episode helpfully illustrates the sensibility of the Ford government’s approach. After all, we do not yet know how dire things may become this winter. If a further lockdown is ultimately warranted, or the current regional lockdown is extended interminably, there may come a time when another round of emergency relief will be needed. And if that day comes, I bet we’ll be glad for Premier Scrooge and his long view of Ontario’s finances.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on December 20, 2020.

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