TORONTO – With the Ontario election campaign dominated by the Liberal government’s scandals and the Tories’ pledge to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, some worry that health and education, two areas of top concern to voters, have received little attention.
Funding for these sectors eats up nearly two thirds of all government program spending – $82.7 billion this year – and advocates for patients and parents say voters should know the main parties’ platforms before they cast their ballots on Thursday.
“I think it is important for everybody to remember that there is a ton of politics in education, and when governments change – or the same government gets a new mandate – it often means many changes in education,” said Annie Kidder of People for Education.
“Eventually policy and politics has an impact on schools and kids.”
The Liberal campaign platform, based largely on the May 1 budget – which failed to get the support of the opposition, triggering the election – calls education “the most important investment government can make,” and promises to continue the 30-per-cent tuition rebate program for low- and middle-income students in post-secondary schools.
The Liberals would also allocate $11 billion over 10 years for new schools and repairs to existing schools, plus $500 million for maintenance at colleges and universities and funding to create spaces for 15,000 more undergraduate students.
In Depth: Ontario Election 2014
They would also provide $150 million to school boards to cover the costs of professional development for teachers, and purchase tablets, software, cameras and other learning resources.
Readers have to go halfway through the New Democrat’s platform before they find any mention of education, which includes promises to freeze college and university tuitions and make student loans interest free.
The NDP would hire 1,000 new health and physical education teachers over four years, plus 1,000 new educational assistants, and provide increased funding for school nutrition programs.
In contrast, the Conservatives would cut 9,700 “non-teaching” positions, including educational assistants, school psychologists and social workers, and increase class sizes and change full-day kindergarten so only a teacher or early childhood educator is in the class.
The Tories also promise to focus on basic math skills with more specialized math teachers and a return to teaching multiplication tables, and would offer financial incentives to get more people with math and science backgrounds into teaching.
The non-partisan Ontario Health Coalition is concerned that health-care issues have been virtually ignored during the campaign, and did not feature prominently in the platforms of the major parties.
“To be honest, these are the most shallow health-care platforms in the election that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this for 14 years,” said executive director Natalie Mehra.
“There’s not a lot of substance in them.”
The Liberals offer a “guarantee” that every Ontarian will have access to a primary care provider within four years, and say they will spend $750 million on home and community care over three years and increase pay for personal support workers.
They also promise to lower wait times for referrals to specialists, expand the scope of practice for nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals and increase funding for mental health and addictions. The Liberals also promise $11.4 billion over 10 years for hospital expansion and redevelopment projects.
The NDP’s health platform includes promises to create 50 new family health clinics, use more nurse practitioners in emergency rooms to reduce wait times, create 1,400 new long-term care beds and forgive medical school student debt for doctors who work in under serviced areas.
They party also offers a five-day “guarantee” for home care after a patient in discharged from hospital, and promises a caregiver tax credit of $1,275 a year to people who have to care for a family member.
The Conservatives promise to create chronic care centres of excellence and will increase home-based care for patients and expand home care and long-term care availability. They would also update the scope of practice for pharmacists, nurse practitioners and other professionals.
The Tories also promise more choice within OHIP funding so patients getting home care services like housekeeping and personal support could choose whether to have the government purchase home care for them, which is the case under the Liberals, or rather use the same money to hire the home care of their choice.
But the health coalition is concerned that the Tories would create so-called “hubs” – that she believes mean “mega-mergers” in Ontario’s hospital sector – an idea introduced by Hudak in his so-called white papers, released over the past year.
“Nowhere is their plan actually laid out, and on the (PC) website all those white papers have been taken down, so it’s almost a secret plan to really engage in the most massive restructuring Ontario has every seen,” said Mehra.
© The Canadian Press, 2014