March 29, 2018 7:00 am
Updated: March 29, 2018 7:03 am

COMMENTARY: Ontario’s government sure is spending a ton of money on ‘free’ stuff

Provincial Finance Minister Charles Sousa takes questions from journalists during a pre-budget lock-up as the Ontario Provincial Government prepares to deliver its 2018 Budget at the Queens Park Legislature in Toronto on Wednesday March 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Chris Young / The Canadian Press
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Wow. Gosh. All those goodies Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have been announcing in the last few days? It turns out all this free stuff is going to cost a ton of money.

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There were big investments in health care, of course. More for hospitals in the Toronto and Ottawa areas. More for sick children, especially. More for mental health. More for affordable housing. Don’t forget the educational initiatives! And GTA transit! And free childcare for the little ones! And free prescription drugs for the elderly! And more for …

… really? For horse racing? We’re doing that thing all over again?

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This isn’t a full list. It’s just a few of the big ones you might have heard about in recent weeks. I pulled the links off the government’s official page for press releases, which is here. Check it out. There’s a ton I didn’t include.

A word that flew around a lot lately was “free.” Health care is “free,” of course, so expanding access means more free care, faster. The pharmacare plan is “free” drugs for those 65 and over. The childcare plan is “free” for the kiddies between the ages of 2.5 and whenever they go into junior kindergarten (at three or four years of age, depending on when the birthday falls). The dental care plan isn’t entirely free, but it’s comprehensive enough to be the next-nearest thing.

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The problem, of course, is that what Ontarians (and Canadians) often think of as being free is, in fact, anything but. If you’ll indulge me a brief personal aside, many years ago, at a party, I created a slightly awkward moment when I let the beer get the better of me and thrust myself into a conversation between two young ladies I’d only recently met. They’d both been working abroad, and we were complaining about how expensive health care was when outside of Canada, and how happy they were to be back here where it was “free.” “Taxes are a lot higher here, though,” one of them granted.

I just couldn’t take it. Again, the beer had certainly loosened my tongue, but it was such a Canadian moment in a bad way. These two lovely people, intelligent and educated, had no connection in their brains between “free health care is great” and “gee, our taxes are really high.” I wasn’t overly rude, but my attempt to civicsplain the link between those thoughts was not entirely well received.

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Again, an awkward moment, but also one that needs to be scaled up to a province-wide level and repeated, over and over, until it sinks in. Health care isn’t free. The childcare won’t be free. The dental care won’t be virtually free. You’re simply paying for it through other means. Even when times are good and budgets are balanced, this maddening public policy blindspot that persists in the minds of so many is unhealthy in the extreme. It makes it hard to have any rational discussion about how to balance what we as citizens want and expect in our public services, and what we’re willing to pay for via taxes of assorted flavours. It makes us dumber as a society, and the end result of that is, well, Ontario in 2018.

“But Gurney,” you’re saying, “you’ve just trotted out two girls at a party a decade ago as proof of a public policy ignorance. That’s lame.” I assure you, I’ve done no such thing. The party story illustrates (amusingly, I hope) the problem, but for the proof, just listen to Premier Wynne and her cabinet ministers. They’re the ones telling people, over and over, that things are “free.” But they aren’t, and the Premier and her people know that. They also know, however, that most people either don’t grasp that it’s not, or are content to pretend they don’t, so long as the policy changes favour them. Either option is bad.

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A sharp-eyed reader might have noticed that I snuck a qualification into my second-to-last paragraph, calling this behaviour extremely unhealthy “even when times are good and budgets are balanced.” That was very deliberate. That does not describe Ontario today. Times aren’t bad, of course — objectively, anyone with any historical perspective has to grant they’re super. But they problem is, the good times exist — and all the “free” goodies are being offered — thanks to borrowed money.

Debt can be fine — small deficits happen, and debt that directly creates infrastructure that will last decades is routine. But as Wednesday’s budget made official, Ontario is borrowing a lot of money — $6.7 billion next year — to directly fund today’s consumption.

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The Liberals are being almost refreshingly honest about it, too — the premier has said openly that her government made the choice to go back into the red rather than honour a pledge, made in last year’s budget, to deliver two more balanced books. She says it’s about priorities, I say it’s about her polling numbers, but we agree on the main point: the spending spree is discretionary.

So we’re spending the money. We’re borrowing not to build for the future but to spend on today. Along the way, we’ll get some good things done. Kids will get decent childcare. They’ll grow up with nice teeth.

It won’t be until they start working that they realize just how much money we borrowed from them to give them so much free stuff.

Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

 

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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