Tim Hudak commenting on the provincial budget. Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
While the federal campaign is officially underway across the country, in one large, windowless room in the MacDonald Block just off Queen’s Park, the upcoming provincial election got a sort of unofficial kick-start of its own. Tim Hudak took to the podium in front of a room full of reporters to respond to Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan‘s presentation of Ontario’s budget, and spent much of his airtime calling the integrity of the Liberals’ math and their proposals into question. “If this budget was sold at your local Chapters, you’d have to find it in the fiction section,” he began, and his skepticism only grew from there.
Duncan and Hudak were both clearly in election mode, speaking in broad strokes and broader platitudes that were soundbite-ready. Unlike some other members of his caucus, Hudak did not pick up on Rob Ford’s language—not one “respect for taxpayers” slipped out during his half hour at the mic. But the message was the same: “root out the waste” was his version of the gravy refrain, and it was the subject he returned to most often when asked how a Conservative government would balance the books.
To curb spending, Hudak said the Tories would start by scrapping the Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) and the Ontario Power Authority, which he pegged at “about five hundred million dollars in waste to date” (that figure accumulated over several years). His next move would be to conduct a sunset review of all agencies, boards, and commissions to find and eliminate “the fat.” Hudak seemed confident this would bring in substantial savings, though he did not attach any kind of estimate in his remarks. After that? Opening up the Arbitration Act, and reviewing the province’s public service, to “make sure that public pay and benefits reflect Ontario families’ ability to pay.”
The deficit currently sits at $16.7 billion. Given that the Tories have ruled out tax increases, as well as Hudak’s expressed interest in some form of tax cut (by abolishing the HST on certain basic items, or reducing the overall rate of the HST, or through income tax reductions), the implicit message was that these public sector reviews and reductions were going to need to do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Conservative plan to balance the budget. “An Ontario PC government will put families first,” Hudak said, and what families need is a break on their tax bills. Hudak consistently demurred when he was asked to specify what service cuts he’d be willing to consider but made it clear that he thought spending was very far out of control.
Though Duncan’s budget trumpets the economic recovery and rebounding employment—it highlights that, according to Statistics Canada, 91% of the total jobs lost during the recession have been recovered, and 84% of full-time jobs lost over that period have been recovered—Hudak was dismissive. “I don’t think anyone believes these job numbers that Dalton McGuinty is selling,” he responded. He predicted a major tax hike if the Liberals were returned to office in the fall, and summarized their past eight years in office by saying: “There are only two things guaranteed from the McGuinty Government. One: they will increase spending. And two: they will raise your taxes to pay for it.”
“I don’t think it’s worth the paper it’s printed on,” Hudak concluded. His challenge will be whether he can convince voters of that come October.
The full text of Ontario’s 2011 budget is available from the Ministry of Finance’s website.