Ontario at a crossroads as bills come due

By MPP Toby Barrett

“We can’t manage the deficit without addressing what is the single biggest line in
our budget – public sector compensation.” – Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.

Sadly, Ontario is facing a projected $30.2 billion deficit and a $411.4 billion debt by 2017-18 – over half that shortfall represents civil servant labour costs. As the Minister eluded to, change is needed

At the same time, we must preserve valued government services and work with the public sector to ensure the million-plus employees don’t face massive layoffs.

To that end, Thursday I had the opportunity to make the case for my proposed legislation – An Act to address Ontario’s debt through alternatives to public sector layoffs and government program cuts while reducing the fiscal pressure on the people of Ontario who are having trouble paying their bills.

Bill 94 would require meaningful public sector consultation and negotiation to: limit public servants’ compensation to the rate of economic growth; consider unpaid furlough and defined contribution pensions; limit collective agreements to one year; take into account ‘total compensation,’ and introduce the concept of a wage board to research private versus public compensation packages.

These steps would also apply to the Ontario Public Service, broader public sector, including health and education, and would address the concerns of financially-strapped Ontarians tired of paying higher taxes to cover the costs of increasingly-bloated and ineffective governance.

Ontarians have always been conflicted – railing that their taxes are too high but demanding the broadest possible and highest-quality services. At the same time, politicians have long approved generous contracts for public employees in exchange for support at the polls and campaign contributions from the unions that represent those employees. It’s been a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship. But as we see in headlines and our bottom lines, the chickens have come home to roost.

As our natural aversion to debt diminished, politicians found that they could use borrowed money to buy votes. Taxpayers became comfortable with red ink. In the past, the common view was that voters don’t want to face the consequences of their spending demands and that they’ll throw you out of office if you make the tough decisions.
But now, people are beginning to understand the fiscal bubble we are currently living in is about to burst. Now the people of Ontario really want us to stand up and make the tough decisions. They are tired of politicians who talk about deficits but never fix them – good governments do both.
In this age of tough choices, one bedrock principle has to be: we’re all in this together, given the economic and fiscal realities.
While temporary wage moderation will meet short-term fiscal targets, longer-term action is required with co-operative approaches that can drive institutional and system-level change. If not, moderation in total compensation will give way to excessive reduction in the size of the government workforce, and excessive cuts to government programs.

Bill 94 has the ability to erase our annual deficit. Unfortunately, on the same day I made my case for the bill, government and NDP members voted against this important legislation during second reading.

Although Bill 94 did not pass, it introduced the important concept of limiting public sector compensation which should foster future discussion. It’s time to take a stand on behalf of the people we work for – because the voters and the taxpayers are ahead of the politicians on this one!

Give me a call at 1-800-903-8629 or email me at toby.barrett@pc.ola.org.