Everyone was waiting for a signal from Andrea Horwath. Would the leader of the provincial NDP support the minority Liberals' budget?
"Today's budget reflects our proposals," she conceded, to a ballroom full of silent exhales. "Now, we want to see accountable results."
That's not to say the NDP will for sure support the budget. Horwath insists the party hasn't yet made up its mind (despite the deeply uncomfortable question from one reporter, who asked her, "When are you gonna put on your big-girl pants" and make a decision?).
But all three parties agreed on this point: beyond just granting concessions to the NDP, the Liberals have elbowed themselves into much of the progressive space that's typically been dominated by the social democrats.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa tried to paint this budget as more NDP than the NDP, practically daring Horwath to not support it. "This budget more than satisfies their needs, but more importantly, it satisfies the needs of the public ... This meets the requests that the NDP has put forward."
PC leader Tim Hudak disparaged Horwath and Premier Kathleen Wynne as "identical twins." His finance critic, Peter Shurman, framed it as "a billion dollars to buy NDP support," comparing it to the money spent to buy votes through gas plant cancellations.
This left the NDP in the obvious pickle of just what the hell to say. And so they went with complaining about the Liberals adopting their social-policy proposals but not their deficit-reduction strategies.
The unusual dynamics of the whole situation are fun, and they're a key part of the larger story about the direction in which Ontario is headed... but, in a way, it's all abstract jockeying that probably doesn't help you out one bit.
As Horwath said, her job is "trying to get results for people," not "playing political games." And, remarkably, this budget does just that: "concrete action that will improve people's lives" - Charles Sousa's words, which happened to echo my own impressions.
Perhaps it merely speaks to the cruel absurdity of the status quo, but it's hard to see how the following changes wouldn't make a measurable difference in the lives of the least fortunate:
Currently, people receiving assistance from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program have their benefits clawed back by 50 cents for each dollar they earn from employment. Starting in September (and presuming that this budget passes), the first $200 of a person's monthly employment income will not count against the benefits they receive. (Each additional dollar earned beyond $200, would still result in 50 cents coming off their benefits.)
Currently, people receiving assistance from OW have their benefits clawed back by a full dollar for each dollar they earn from self-employment income. Starting in September (and, once again, presuming the budget passes), self-employment income would be deducted from OW payments at the same rate as other kinds of employment income. This change has been made, in large part, to reflect the fact that an increasing number of people are formally classified as independent contractors rather than employees.
Currently, individuals are only elegible for OW and ODSP if they possess less than $606 in liquid assets (cash, investments, etc.). This budget raises that number to $2500. (The current ceiling for couples is $1043, and that'll go up to $5000.)
Currently, increases to Ontario's minimum wage are set out on a more-or-less annual, ad hoc basis: a largely arbitrary decision made by the government of the day. This budget proposes that Ontario establish an Advisory Panel "composed of an independent chair and representatives from business, worker, and youth groups" that would be tasked with developing a transparent, formalized process (such as a formula) for future increases. The panel would hold public consultations and report back to the government six months after the date the budget passes.
Finally, social assistance rates will go up 1%. But adults without children who receive OW will get an "additional top-up" of $14 a month, which combined with the 1% increase, amounts to an extra 3%. (Not awesome, but not nothing, either.)
There's a great Naheed Nenshi line:
If the federal government disappeared today, it would probably be a week or two before most Canadians noticed. If the provincial governments disappeared, unless you were in school or the hospital, it might be a couple days before you noticed. If the municipal governments disappeared, you'd have no transit, no roads, no lights and no clean water. You'd notice because you'd be dead.
The reporter to whom he told that was Siri Agrell, who's since left the Globe to become the speechwriter for Kathleen Wynne.
Today's budget contained no blockbuster news for education and healthcare. But there are other ways that the provincial government can effect the day-to-day experience of ordinary people.
Yes, in both recent and less recent history, the provincial Liberals have done several things that could fairly be considered unforgivable. And whether a single budget can actually make up for any of that is not an easy question.
But Andrea Horwath made repeated pronouncements that she would "listen to the people" before deciding how to proceed on this. So, if we figure that her supporters people are more fond of NDP policies than they are angry at Liberal intransigence, we won't run the risk of being thrust back into the kind of cold, Conservative era that produced many of the policies that today's proposals attempt to correct.