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  • mmantha-co

May 30, 2024

Premier Ford’s narrative of a cash-strapped Ontario rings hollow 


The prevailing narrative in our province, our country and indeed globally right now is that we are facing lean economic times. I imagine most readers will agree with this and have their own personal anecdotes concerning rising costs, reduced purchasing power, and difficult decisions they’ve had to make while budgeting. We’re inundated daily with articles and news segments about the uncertain financial headwinds we face as Canadians.

This narrative is one that I often have presented to me when I rise in the legislature to ask this Progressive Conservative government about cuts to services, underfunding of public resources or potential programs that are being shelved or punted down the line. Invariably, the answer always boils down to “while we’d love to help, money is tight, and we cannot possibly do that right now.” It doesn’t matter if it’s hospitals in small and rural communities that are taking cash advances from banks to make up funding shortfalls, developmental services being forced to operate with decades-long budget freezes or schools that are being understaffed and overcrowded. For this government, there is never enough money to address these issues in a substantial manner.

That’s why I was livid to see last week that the Premier proposed spending $225 million to expedite the sale of beer, wine, and canned cocktails in corner stores and gas stations.

If anyone was unaware, Premier Ford promised long ago to end the deal that the previous government signed with The Beer Store (which is called the “Master Framework Agreement” or MFA) and allow for certain alcoholic beverages to be sold in more than 8,500 new locations across Ontario.

The Premier originally tried to end this agreement unilaterally during his first term in office but had to back down when it was clear that doing so would cost the government too much financially and reputationally. However, last week, he announced that his government was indeed going to end the MFA a whole 15 months ahead of schedule, and it would cost the province a whopping quarter of a billion dollars.

To me, this is a slap in the face to every single Ontarian, especially those of us in Northern Ontario, whom this government has fed lines about how there is not enough money in the provincial treasury to go around. I have written in the past about this government’s largess when it comes to corporate handouts and how I do not believe that they are a wise investment of public money. But this surely takes the cake.

Here are a couple of examples to give you an idea of what this money means in terms of provincial budget items. This initiative’s $225 million price tag is $97 million more than what was announced as part of the government’s nursing enrollment program. It is two-thirds of what the government has allocated for homelessness prevention and supportive housing over the next three years. It is $180 million more than the planned increase to the Northern Health Travel Grant program announced early this month.

Perhaps the most galling comparison for me is that if the Premier had applied this $225 million to the 25 hospitals we have in Northern Ontario, he could have wiped out their collective margin deficits for 2024 three times over.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that this is not a small chunk of change when it comes to provincial spending.

To top off, the insult of this expense to people struggling to get by in our province is that this money, arguably, did not need to be spent at all to achieve the same outcome. The MFA was set to expire in December of 2025, and The Beer Store would have been required to negotiate a new deal with the province or risk being shut out of the market. Instead, the Premier felt this was such a high priority that he needed to free up hundreds of millions of dollars to get beer into corner stores ASAP.

When I put this to the Premier during Question Period last week, his defence was that increased alcohol sales would provide Ontario with an additional $895 million to $1.1 billion in revenue a year. In his view, this will make up for the money spent. Even this logic strains credulity when you look at any study which examines the cost that increased alcohol consumption has on our social system.

The Centre for Mental Health and Addictions (CAMH) released a report in 2022 which estimated that, as of 2017, the costs to our healthcare, justice and social services systems related to alcohol consumption were at least $6.2 billion annually. CAMH also found that the number of adults who reported harmful drinking behaviours has increased consistently over the last 7 years in Ontario and that they are generally higher in jurisdictions with greater availability of alcohol for sale in private retailers. With Ontario expecting more alcohol to be sold and consumed, it stands to reason that the cost associated will climb and wipe out any planned revenue increases almost immediately. 

At the end of the day, this decision is a colossal waste of money, plain and simple. If the Premier had waited until the end of the MFA in 2025, he would have had an easier time defending this decision. However, telling Ontarians that the province’s resources are tapped out one day and then come up with $225 million the next is unacceptable.

After this shameful display of extravagance from the Premier and his government, I hope that Ontarians will never again accept the narrative that he is doing all he can to fix the issues we’re facing but simply doesn’t have the means to do so. If the Premier wants to see something done, he will move heaven and earth to do it. When he refuses to increase hospital budgets or repair our crumbling infrastructure, it is because he simply doesn’t want to.

As always, I invite you to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at mmantha-co@ola.org or call Toll-free 1-800-831-1899.

Michael Mantha, MPP

Algoma-Manitoulin    

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