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Pressing the reset button: A progressive vision for Ontario

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Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

The Ontario government has prorogued the provincial legislature, returning September 12 with a new throne speech.

The throne speech has been cast as government "pressing the reset button" following a recent by-election loss and ongoing controversies such as election finance scandals, hydro privatization, and high hydro bills.

Each of those controversies need to be tackled head on, but what should "pressing the reset button" look like for a government that is mid-term, purporting to be "activist" in its approach and less than two years away from a general election?

The answer starts with the question: what is the role of a provincial government in creating the conditions for decent work and reduced income inequality?

It starts with truly walking away from an austerity agenda.

Since 2012, the Ontario government has presided over a series of public sector cuts. Previous CCPA research shows that has acted as a drag on economic growth in Ontario. We also know that public sector jobs tend to contribute to reduced income inequality and greater pay equity. A progressive, activist government would be laser focused on such a contribution.

The government also has an opportunity, through its Changing Workplace Review, to update the labour relations act and the employment standards act to meet the needs of the 21st-century labour market.

For instance, ensuring all workers have access to sick leave, advance notice of shift schedules, and other regulatory changes are needed. The labour relations act also needs to be modernized so that workers who are looking for the protection of a union can join and keep their union.

But there's more. Nationally, in the lead up to the 2015 federal election, the subject of income inequality was widely discussed but it has not been put in the main policy window in Ontario. Now would be a good time for a progressive, activist government to lead the way with proactive solutions.

It could start by responding to the relentless, widespread campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15. A $15 minimum wage would put Ontario's lowest paid workers within about 60 per cent of the average industrial wage and it would bring the minimum wage closer to what it takes to earn a living wage -- a wage where you can actually make ends meet.

The province could also condition the field for decent work by implementing living wage policy conditions for any business that it procures goods and services from or that it contracts business out to. That would be a shining example of how governments can use procurement and contracting out strategies to raise the bar for low-paying work in the private sector.

The province could also foster gender parity in the workplace, acting on the recommendations of the recently released gender pay report, including, but not limited to:

  • Delivering a high quality, affordable, publicly funded, geared-to-income early learning system within a defined time frame;
  • Alleviating gaps in the current child care system;
  • Ensuring supports for elder care;
  • Ensuring parental shared leave;
  • Addressing barriers and compliance to pay equity;
  • Examining ways to coordinate achievement of pay equity with wage enhancement programs in the Broader Public Sector;
  • Consulting with relevant workplace parties on how to value work in female-dominant sectors using pay equity or other means;
  • Encouraging transparent pay policies;
  • Requiring all ministries to apply gender-based analysis to the design, development, implementation, and evaluation of all government policies and programs.
  • Aside from using its clout to set the conditions for decent work and greater equality, a progressive, activist provincial government could also draw on its fiscal resources to invest in three areas: public service, income supports, and infrastructure.

In pursuit of its zero deficit goal, the government has relied heavily on austerity measures, squeezing operating spending and flat lining many public sector workers' wages.

Improved public services and better funding for health care, public transit, and affordable housing are needed. This includes investing in more services, ensuring they are more affordable, and revaluing the public servants tasked with delivering these services -- public sector workers who have been the subject of ongoing austerity measures for four years now.

It also includes improved income supports for the most vulnerable -- including investments to close the poverty gap for those who qualify for social assistance and a renewed, far more proactive approach to the province's commitment to reduce poverty.

University tuition in Ontario is among the highest in Canada. With high student debt burdens and a generation of young, educated workers facing a precarious labour market, it's time to address both post-secondary education affordability and supports to help more young workers land decent jobs.

And can we finally create an elementary and secondary education funding formula that works for students and schools?

Last but not least, the province has recognized the need for investments in physical infrastructure. These investments should be made with several goals in mind: disaster prevention, proactive anticipation of climate change-related catastrophes, public safety before private profit (this is especially related to the Ontario government's love affair with public-private partnerships, now renamed Alternative Financing and Procurement).

But how does an activist government fund such a laudable agenda? For years, Ontarians have been told the fiscal deficit has required the squeeze on public services. A zero deficit is expected next year, but we know that maintaining a balanced budget will require new revenue to move beyond austerity and invest in a bold, progressive vision.

That's a conversation Ontario can no longer afford to avoid. The province needs to increase revenue to support the public services that benefit everyone. Everything should be on the table: corporate income taxes, individual income taxes, the HST, gas and fuel taxes, and more. It's time to start valuing taxes for what they provide: public services and supports that make Ontario a better place to live and work. Taxes and their benefits have been delinked for too long. A progressive activist government would work to change that.

In 2018, Ontarians are scheduled to go to the polls to elect their next provincial government. That means we have two years to set the conditions for a new policy conversation in this province. Such a conversation should be bold, proactive, and understanding that many of the challenges facing Ontario are both critical and urgent.

That bold agenda should be even broader than this single blog post can outline. Let's press the reset button on austerity and think big.

There is no time like the present. What we do, or do not do, will affect us today, tomorrow, and it will affect future generations. Let's get this right.

Trish Hennessy is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ontario office. Follow her on Twitter @trishhennessy.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

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