National Post (Latest Edition)
ONTARIO’S NEW FINANCE MINISTER ‘LASER FOCUSED’ ON JOB CREATION.
• Peter Bethlenfalvy is pledging to keep a steady hand on the tiller of Ontario’s finances after his sudden elevation to the job of finance minister last week, alongside his role as treasury board president, in the wake Rod Phillips’ resignation.
“Given my (earlier) financial background on Bay Street and Wall Street over the past 30 years or so… it’s positioned me to provide continuity and stability, and transition seamlessly into the role,” Bethlenfalvy said Sunday in his first interview since being sworn in Thursday shortly after Phillips returned from a controversial trip to the Caribbean as coronavirus cases surged in Ontario.
Bethlenfalvy, who earlier in his career worked in senior roles at TD Securities and Manulife Financial, said his priorities will be continuing to provide support to families and businesses and workers hurt by the pandemic and focusing on economic recovery for Canada’s most populous province “to make sure we rebound much stronger than before.”
Ontario was leading the country in job creation before the pandemic, he said, adding that “we’re going to continue ( on) that path… in a laser-focused way.”
He acknowledged that renewed and extended lockdowns — now province-wide for all non- essential businesses — are painful for the affected firms. But he said the province has been taking advice from public health and medical experts when making such decisions, and is providing millions of dollars in support to businesses including grants and relief on property taxes and energy bills as a “bridge to the other side” of the pandemic.
“Our decisions are very much driven by the health and safety and the guidance that we’re getting from the experts,” he said, adding that his government is also “very mindful of the difficult environment that many families and workers and businesses across the province have to face.”
He said he believes businesses and workers in the province will prove to be “resilient” as his government unfurls more than $ 15 billion in supports over the next three years, as announced in November ’ s budget.
Bethlenfalvy added that the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines — though criticized by some as being too slow as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb — should provide a “no pun intended, shot in the arm” to public health and ultimately the economy.
“I’m very optimistic about not only the rollout but getting this economy back on its feet and stronger than before, both from a health point of view and from a business point of view — those things are linked,” he said. “I think there’s hope.”
He also spoke about ongoing co- operation with Ottawa to combat the economic and health effects of the ongoing pandemic, and said he has already been in contact with his federal counterpart, Chrystia Freeland, who is also relatively new to the finance portfolio. “I’m very confident we will have a very constructive working relationship,” he said.
“It’s been essential that the federal government and the provincial government and municipal levels of government work together and that’s exactly what’s been occurring and I think that’s critical.”
A spokesperson for Bethlenfalvy’s office added the finance minister did not travel during the holidays.
Trevin Stratton, chief economist at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said there is room for improvement when it comes to a national response to the pandemic. “A plan to replace Canada’s current patchwork approach of reacting to daily numbers is overdue,” he said. “It is neither socially nor economically sustainable to rely heavily on rotating lockdowns while we wait for an effective vaccine to be widely administered.”
Stratton said a “coherent” national strategy would include all three levels of government working together to address several areas beyond existing economic supports and the vaccine rollout. These include science-based policies to track and limit the spread of the virus where it is occurring; widespread rapid testing and contact tracing; and open, transparent communications and consistent messaging.
“Governments must make a priority of generating and sharing timely data about how and where the disease is spreading and must design their policies based on that data,” he said. “Their actions must be timely, targeted and effective, avoiding either waiting to act before an outbreak becomes uncontrolled or imposing measures that unduly restrict activities that are not significant contributors to spread.”
Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, extended targeted lockdowns across the entire province on Dec. 26. By that time, his finance minister Rod Phillips was already in St. Barts, where he had flown earlier in the month despite the government urging Ontario residents to stay close to home. Those in hot spots in the greater Toronto area were being encouraged to venture out only for essential needs.
Ford ordered Phillips, finance minister since June of 2019, to return. He then accepted his resignation. Phillips remains MPP for Ajax, just east of Toronto.