National Post

Ontario Liberals just never learn


As if any more proof was needed, the Ontario budget tabled this week has driven home, yet again, that the province’s Liberals, and their l eader Kathleen Wynne, haven’t learned a thing. The only real question is whether the voters of Canada’s mostpopulo­us province have.

The budget is predictabl­y heavy on the self- congratula­tion and back-patting that it seems all such announceme­nts are now obligated to contain. The government is particular­ly proud of having “balanced the budget,” as it had previously promised, by the next fiscal year. This is clearly something the Liberals are banking on ahead of the 2018 election.

And it’s no wonder. The Ontario Liberals have spent money like the proverbial drunken sailor for a decade, ramping up the province’s debt to $ 312 billion ( it was $ 132 billion when they took office in 2003). Then again, sailors eventually run out of money and report back to their post. Ontario just keeps borrowing, and interest payments are already $ 1 billion a month — the third- largest single expense. Balancing the budget is clearly how the Liberals are hoping to sell voters on their fitness to manage an economy as large as Ontario’s.

It’s not always irresponsi­ble to borrow to build. But it’s a little rich for the Liberals to claim to have balanced the books while still adding tens of billions to the province’s debt tab.

Pity it’s all an illusion. The books aren’t balanced, they’re j ust reimagined. Short-term or even one-time cash payouts from asset sales are being counted as revenue. The province has also decided to only count debt accrued through operationa­l shortfalls as real debt; money borrowed to build infrastruc­ture apparently doesn’t count, even though it’ ll still be added to Ontario’s bottom line and will result in mounting interest payments..

And then there’s the signature prescripti­on drug plan. The Liberals have announced that, starting on Jan. 1 of next year, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan will cover the full cost of prescripti­ons for all Ontario residents under the age of 25. What the Liberals are clearly hoping will be seen as a sign of their progressiv­e generosity — who’d dare object to helping sick kids get the medicines they need? — makes less sense the more you look at it. Making prescripti­on drugs more accessible to those who simply cannot afford them is a valid public policy goal. An inability to properly treat existing medical conditions before they become an acute crisis eventually drives up health care costs, when patients who can’t afford to get better eventually worsen and require hospital care, perhaps over the long term. Prevention through treatment is cost-effective and humane.

But the program is overly broad. The most reliable surveys of Canadians indicate that only roughly 10 per cent of the population truly cannot afford needed drugs; many Canadians are at least partially covered through public service or corporate plans, or personally obtained supplement­al insurance. And yet the children of these residents, the comfortabl­e majority of Ontarians, will now receive their drugs courtesy of the Ontario taxpayer, with no semblance of means testing. It’s just that kind of mindless spending that helped get the Liberals into their fiscal mess in the first place, and it takes place against a background of hospital wards full to the bursting due to chronic funding shortfalls at hospitals and a woefully insufficie­nt longterm care system. But, again, they never learn. The money goes to the splashiest new promise, not the long-standing urgent need.

We could go on. There’s their new Basic Income Pilot project proposal that, as economist Kevin Milligan revealed in these pages this week, will send most of its money to young adults who still live at home with their parents, without ending the other social supports that will make it possible to evaluate the pilot properly. There’s an expansion of child care spaces that funnel money into institutio­nal facilities, which Canadians consistent­ly rank last among their preferred child care options. There’s a tax credit for seniors who use transit, which, much like the pharmacare plan, contains no means testing element ( and overall, data show Canada’s seniors are doing quite well). It all speaks to the recurring theme of this Liberal government: every lucky break on the revenue front should be immediatel­y negated by more spending. Every tax coming in above budgeted expectatio­ns must immediatel­y be committed to shoring up a riding or two. The entire prolonged return to balance shall be celebrated by digging more holes for the future.

All of this is disappoint­ing. None of it is surprising. This is just how this government is programmed to operate, which explains why it’s about to do the same thing to Ontario’s housing rental market that it did to the hydro sector — destroy it through cleverly spun and possibly wellintent­ioned, yet predictabl­y doomed interventi­ons.

The Liberals just can’t help themselves, and they don’t even bother pretending otherwise anymore. The voters know all they need to. Whether they are any more capable of learning than the Liberals will be determined at the polls next year.

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