Reality check: Anti-Conservative ads and ‘health-care cuts’

Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford waves a copy of the Provincial Budget as he 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

“(Conservatives) cut $36 billion from health care. Do you really believe Ford won’t cut your health care? Stop Doug Ford from gutting your health care.”

A recent third-party ad circulating on Twitter has sparked a bit of outrage in political circles — not because it attacks the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader running for election, but for its claim about supposed federal health care cuts under ex-prime minister Stephen Harper.

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The group behind the ad is Working Ontario Women (WOW), which self-describes as an independent, non-partisan organization that “fights to change women’s lives for the better.” The group’s website lists women’s health and other health-care issues, like the right to choose and pharma care, among the list of causes it advances and says it is “supported by organized labour and women’s activists groups.”

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WOW was founded in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and is reportedly financed by the Service Employees International Union, which has ties to the Ontario Liberal party.

The ad, tweeted on April 23, picked up negative attention on social media over the weekend as Ontario gears up for the writ to drop this Wednesday.

On health care, Ford has so far pledged to cut wait times in Ontario hospitals and throw $1.9 billion over the next decade towards mental health and supports for people with addictions. Both promises mirror commitments made by former party leader Patrick Brown in his platform — titled the People’s Guarantee.

READ MORE: Ontario PCs promise $1.9 billion for mental health care over decade if elected

Is the figure in the ad accurate?

WOW’s ad — and the debate it has provoked — is, in fact, a big, election déjà vu. The “Harper health care cuts” claim is essentially identical to one made in another anti-Conservative ad produced by Engage Canada ahead of the 2015 federal election.

The so-called “cuts” being referred to are in the context of the money the federal government transfers to provinces for health care spending. What Engage Canada — and now Working Ontario Women — are referencing is the rate at which those cash transfers are growing over time.

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As Global News analyzed in the wake of the Engage Canada ad, it’s not exactly accurate to equate a reduction in the rate of growth of federal health care transfers to “cuts.” Under the old formula for calculating the transfers, which fell to the former Harper government to renew, transfers got a six per cent bump each year. Under the updated formula, introduced in 2012, transfers would grow by six per cent through the 2016/17 fiscal year, after which they would increase by an amount tied to the growth rate of Canada’s gross domestic product — or, alternatively, by three per cent per year, if the economy performed poorly.

In other words, the transfers would still increase every year — but the rate at which they would was vulnerable to fluctuation.

In the aftermath, the provinces estimated that they would receive $36 billion less under the updated formula over a 10-year period than under the old one — which appears to be where the “$36 billion in health care cuts” originated. Ahead of the 2015 election, that framing was pushed by third-party groups like Engage Canada. The federal New Democrats, under then-leader Tom Mulcair, also used the changes to health care transfer growth rates as a campaign tactic.

READ MORE: Reality check — New anti-Harper health care ad doesn’t tell whole story 

So what’s changed now? Not much, except that WOW’s attack against the Harper government’s track record on health care is being applied to Conservatives at the provincial level.

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Like they said then, many politicos, academics and journalists have called out WOW’s ad for being misleading. Some, including a former staffer in Harper’s PMO, went as far as to call it an “outright lie.

WOW spokesperson Megan Lorius defended her organization’s ad in an emailed statement to Global News, but did not respond by time of publication to followup questions about the framing of the ad, the group’s assumption of Ford’s approach to health care based on changes made under the federal Conservative party and WOW’s backing from the Service Employees International Union, whose director of government relations is a past president of the Ontario Liberal party.

READ MORE: Ontario PC leader Doug Ford’s ‘news’ videos echo ones used by Liberals in 2007

“Because Doug Ford refuses to release a detailed plan or take questions from the media, Ontarians can only conclude that he’ll do what Conservatives always do: cut,” wrote Lorius, who said she was not available for comment by phone.

A second ad produced by WOW points to layoffs of registered nurses under the former PC government of Mike Harris. The source of the 6,000 figure is an article published in 1999 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal — and it’s been referenced time and time again by the Ontario Liberals.

WOW has also produced television ads attacking Progressive Conservative policies.

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— With files from Leslie Young