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The Ontario election is nearing its end and by Thursday night we will know the makeup of the next provincial government.
In some ways, this election featured a lot of substantive debate and policy discussion. For instance, a lot of focus was placed on the relative merit and credibility of the party platforms (and costing of those platforms).
On the other hand, a lot of important issues didn't get much airtime.
Here are some issues the CCPA Ontario team agrees deserved more attention during the election -- and hopefully will be on the agenda again soon: The end of austerity, reducing poverty and income inequality, recognizing the value of public services, correcting the flawed education funding formula, adopting universal dental care, improving skills training opportunities, defining a positive role for government, and implementing electoral reform. The following includes posts from CCPA Ontario economist Kaylie Tiessen, CCPA Ontario Director of Communications Jennifer Story, CCPA Research Associate Kayle Hatt and me.
Here's a question: Why are the three major parties still racing to balance the budget when most of the world has already changed the channel on austerity?
When it comes to budgets, the discussion in this election has centred around who will balance the budget faster. And the difference between the three plans is only one year.
But no party has mentioned the damage that austerity is doing or the fact that governments, international organizations and think-tanks the world over are in almost unanimous agreement that austerity in the wake of the 2008-09 recession ran counter to economic recovery.
We've heard plenty of mention of Greece and the debt-to-GDP ratio in this election (which, by the way, is about four times the size of Ontario's). That debt led to the implementation of severe austerity measures in that country, but no mention of the fact that the proponents of austerity in Greece -- namely the International Monetary Fund and the European Union -- eventually realized the folly of forcing such harsh austerity measures and changed their tune.
What we did learn from Greece is that austerity has a severe and detrimental effect on individual and societal well-being, on poverty rates, on unemployment levels and on public services. It is also a net drag on economic growth.
- Kaylie Tiessen, CCPA-Ontario economist
Poverty and income inequality
Ontario has one of the worst levels of income inequality in the country, yet that topic got short shrift in this election campaign.
There is the Liberal budget promise to raise taxes on the richest 2 per cent, to increase social assistance rates for people receiving ODSP, to raise the Ontario Child Benefit (which is a bonafide help to lower-income families), as well as to expand the province's student nutrition program.
The NDP's adoption of neoconservative language on small businesses, government waste and tax cuts in this election signaled to many a shift in the party's traditional values, at least for campaign purposes. As a result, it has left itself with very little to say about poverty reduction and income inequality -- in fact, a word search in their platform PDF yielded no mention of either social problems. Though there is a critique in the platform of how "Liberals are squeezing people out of the middle class by making everything more expensive."
The NDP's solution includes giving "families a break for a change" by taking the HST off hydro. Platform similarities to the Liberals also include promises to expand dental care for children in low-income households, to invest in nutrition programs for children and to enhance the Ontario Child Benefit for families with children. The NDP would also index the OCB to inflation.
The Green Party goes one step further, proposing to double the Ontario Child Benefit and promoting the idea of a Guaranteed Annual Income for all citizens -- the only party to put that idea on the table in this election.
So, some piecemeal promises to alleviate some of the stresses on the poor and vulnerable, as well as reducing costs for the middle class, but no overarching vision to tackle income inequality (including its racialized dimensions) in this province in a systematic way. Given the world is fawning over French economist Thomas Piketty's withering critique of capitalism and the unsustainability of wealth and income inequality, one might have expected the issue to get some daylight in this election campaign. But that didn't happen.
- Trish Hennessy, CCPA-Ontario director
The value of public services and the role of government
Government programs and services make our lives easier every day, in a myriad of ways. Who is championing this fact?
Universal public services allow us all equal access to health care that we could not otherwise afford on our own. Same goes for education: we collectively pay for a quality, universally accessible, locally available school system, instead of requiring families to pay out of pocket for the cost of their children's learning, the quality of which depends entirely on one's ability to pay.
Public services provide the roads that we walk, bike and drive on every day to get to work, to school or to the public park down the street.
When politicians denigrate the role of government and the public services they provide, with familiar tropes like "rooting out rampant waste and inefficient, bloated bureaucracies" they erode our trust in government and our collective will to align government with our shared values.
In her breakthrough new book The Entrepreneurial State, Mariana Mazzucato does what Ontario politicians haven't yet: she lays out the role that public investment, in the form of loans or grants, played in the development of important innovations: like the Internet, touch screens and biotechnology. Many innovations that have changed our lives were heavily financed by government in the early stages of development, when private funding was insufficient to get the innovation off the ground.
There is a yearning in Ontario for our politicians to enthusiastically depict government as the solution, not the problem; to champion the value of public services; to declare the end of austerity; and to speak up for the value of taxes as the means by which we create the kind of fair and compassionate society in which we all want to live.
- Kaylie Tiessen, CCPA-Ontario economist
The flawed education funding formula
Each year Ontario spends over $20 billion on K-12 education, employing roughly 125,000 million people in our schools, to deliver education to the province's two million students.
So it's no wonder education makes its way into every provincial election platform.
Unfortunately, in this election, the discussion was superficial at best.
The single largest challenge facing our education system is the funding formula. The McGuinty government inherited a formula that is deeply flawed. As a result, funding gaps for core services are filled by redirecting dollars from dwindling grants that are intended for additional services and high-need students.
Inadequately funded full-day kindergarten has exacerbated the problem -- the funds provided have not matched the true cost of implementation, which means more borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.
The Liberal government committed in 2009 to fix the funding formula, but it has yet to fulfill this promise.
So it's no wonder Ontarians regularly encounter news stories like this, particularly in the spring, when school boards make exceedingly tough choices in an effort to balance their budgets, or face the province stepping in and making those choices for them.
And it's not like revenue-generation is an option: Mike Harris took away school boards' power to levy their own taxes. Boards are now merely the custodians of a fiscal mess they are accountable for but constrained from truly fixing.
All three parties did make some gestures in this election campaign to attempt to win over education-minded voters, but none of them even hint at correcting the core problem -- likely because what we have on offer is austerity-lite, austerity, or austerity on steroids.
None of the parties appears brave enough right now to actually steer a course correction away from austerity, which is what addressing the education funding formula would require.
- Jennifer Story, CCPA-Ontario Communications Director
Public dental care
Ontario needs a public dental care program.
The Liberals deserve some credit for creating dental assistance programs for low-income children, which they proposed to expand as part of this year's budget.
Similarly, the NDP promised to spend an additional $15 million per year to expand dental coverage for low-income children.
These are important and worthy initiatives, but they aren't enough.
Access to dental care has a huge impact on overall health and on quality of life, however there are large inequalities in terms of who gets care.
Only 46.5 per cent of poor Canadians visit the dentist in a 12-month period, compared to the median rate of 64.6 per cent and a 78.5 per cent access rate for high-income earners.
This inequality -- the gap in access between those at the 25th and 75th percentile -- is the highest in OECD countries with comparable data.
And it's a problem that deserves much more attention. Three years ago CCPA published a collection of papers on dental care policy options; it's a top-notch research document that's still relevant today. I wish Ontario's political leaders would put it on their summer reading lists.
- Kayle Hatt, CCPA Research Associate
Training and youth employment
This didn't get much airtime, though all parties are promising more training for workers.
That's essential for Ontario's transition to a knowledge economy and it's the missing link in the misguided "skills gap" debate.
But there is room for improvement in the parties' platforms on this front.
The NDP plan focuses on workers aged 55-plus. Given youth employment rates are among the worst in the country, one would expect the NDP would recognize a problem in need of a solution. But youth joblessness goes unaddressed in its platform.
The PC plan references training opportunities for youth, but its focus appears to be limited to the skilled trades.
The Green Party is proposing to divert money from corporate grants (and other sources of funding) to create a Social Innovation Foundation that would extend grants, loans and mentorship to young entrepreneurs.
The Liberal budget targeted several programs to try to get youth working again, though there is room for expansion in terms of budgets and resources for these programs.
There's also room for a more targeted regional approach that goes in partnership with local government and organizations -- to really tuck into the solution.
This is a problem that isn't going to disappear on its own, so we predict the need for more diverse and targeted solutions will continue to be an issue post-election.
- Trish Hennessy, CCPA-Ontario director
These days it seems like discussion of electoral reform is out of fashion, as if even mentioning it might get a snappy response of "that's sooo 2007."
While we don't know what the result will be on June 12, it's a safe bet that the electoral system will return a skewed result.
In 2011, the winning party got 49 per cent of the seats with only 37 per cent of the votes. In 2007, it was 66 per cent of the seats with 42 per cent of the votes and, in 2003, 67 per cent of seats with 46 per cent support. And so on.
Many countries that started with a single member, first-past-the-post system have undertaken reform. It's time for Ontario to re-examine electoral reform, while learning from the lessons of 2007.
And beyond changing the electoral system, we should also consider changing how elections are financed.
The federal government and several provinces have eliminated corporate donations in their elections and Ontario should do so as well.
- Kayle Hatt, CCPA Research Associate
Photo: Amir Syed/flickr
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