Kelly McParland: Doug Ford under siege from the Teacher-Snowbird-Trees axis

The Canadian Snowbird Association recently fired off a missive to its Ontario members, warning of the provincial government’s plan to cancel coverage for out-of-country medical emergencies.

For thousands of seniors, it was like a kick in the artificial hip. More than half a million Canadians own property in Florida — predominantly Ontario and Quebec seniors who head south every winter to escape the cold. Texas, Arizona and California are also popular destinations, but, for Ontarians, Florida is the overwhelming favourite, and health coverage is one of their perennial concerns.

The snowbird association was understandably concerned, estimating that premiums for private insurance would increase 7.5 per cent as a result. Although provincial coverage was limited, and hardly enough to compensate for the cost of U.S. medical charges, the association noted that out-of-country help is mandated by the Canada Health Act, and every province and territory offers some degree of reimbursement.

Thus seniors joined the growing list of Ontarians upset at the Progressive Conservative government for straying into its backyard as it labours to reduce expenditures and meet its promise to reduce the swollen deficit.

On the same day the snowbird alert went out, reports indicated a program that aimed to plant 50 million trees across the province was being cancelled after reaching just over half its goal. A day later, a union representing legal aid lawyers issued a complaint about the government’s decision to pull $133 million from its budget and bar it from using provincial money for refugee and immigration cases. Two organizations that provide support services to Ontario libraries have had their funding — already meagre — cut in half. And a high school in a Toronto suburb, known for its arts program, told students they’d have to re-select elective classes because a number were being dropped due to changes in schools funding.

As Premier Doug Ford and his government work through expenditures in search of savings, the accumulation of grievances is growing. Ford said last year, when campaigning for his job, that he’d only need to find “four cents on the dollar” in savings to end the frightening plunge into debt that was a major concern about the previous Liberal government. Opponents warned of savage attacks on important programs, but instead, many of the reductions have been to relatively minor operations that didn’t cost a lot to begin with. Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s first budget struck many as little different from the Liberals’ own belated efforts to slow the growth in spending. According to his plan, the deficit won’t disappear until after the next election, and spending will continue to grow, albeit at minimal rates.

But the problem with “austerity” — as “progressives,” activists, advocates and their allies insist on labelling any attempt to recognize that the money pot isn’t bottomless — is that every expenditure was put there to please somebody, and even the mildest reductions provoke disapproval. Snowbirds, for example, wonder why, after a lifetime of labour (and taxes), the province would see fit to threaten their retirement years with penny-ante reductions in important medical benefits. Of course, anyone who can afford to while away the winter in the sunny south might not strike many as particularly underprivileged, but that’s just the thing — no one considers themselves rightful targets of reductions to any benefit they’re used to receiving.

Supporters of the tree program noted that trees are vital elements in cleaning the air of carbon emissions, while protecting shorelines against erosion. You could also argue that landowners should be paying for their own trees, and that environmental groups able to raise millions to launch legal attacks and advertising campaigns could surely find a way to replace the $4.7-million the program cost. While the Mississauga school that cut back programs blamed the decision on the province, a spokesman for the education minister retorted that the government has pledged no teachers will be cut, that schools haven’t even been given funding figures yet, and any move to reduce classes until finances are known is “irresponsible and unjustified.”

In an odd sort of way, the outcry that greets every spending decrease argues in favour of the sort of draconian reductions opposition parties delight in predicting. Taking an axe to a few major programs in the first year of a mandate may inspire professions of shock and horror, but the reverberations tend to fade over time, providing hope that by the next election date the pain will have subsided and the benefits begun to be felt. As federal finance minister, Paul Martin hacked away at crucial programs in the 1990s as Ottawa laboured to fix its abysmal finances, and soon had years of surpluses to help make people forget.

Chipping away at lesser benefits, on the other hand, even ones few will miss, leaves a government vulnerable to being accused of being both cheap and hard-hearted. Fedeli’s decision to remove a few millions from library programs has led to predictable articles about mild-mannered librarians fearing for the services they provide to the needy and elderly. Among those to feel the crunch most, they say, will be small towns, remote areas and Indigenous communities that lack the ready access to internet and other facilities taken for granted in Toronto and other cities.

Seniors are another group it bodes ill to annoy. They tend to grow conservative with age, are known to turn up on voting day, and don’t appreciate anyone monkeying with their finances. It’s a good bet that many of the snowbirds just recently back from their winter homes were supporters of Ford’s pledge to get tough on finances. But they are just like others in expecting that when government says it has to reduce spending, it means on other people, not them. Austerity is like climate change: we all want to do something, as long as there’s no serious impact on ourselves.




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