Although less than a year in office, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has already demonstrated a remarkable talent for pursuing short-term gains at the expense of serious long-term costs and risks.
The pattern was set early. The Ford government’s first action was to terminate the province’s cap-and-trade carbon pricing system. That move the cost the province billions in revenue needed to prepare the province for the already evident impacts of climate change, and to reduce the province’s emissions and prevent even more serious damage.
In exchange, consumers got a reduction of a few cents per litre on gasoline prices — far less than gas prices fluctuate over a typical weekend.
These kinds of moves are coming to be a defining feature of the Ford government. In a world where economies are increasingly defined in terms of knowledge and information services, cuts to secondary and post-secondary education run significant risks undermining the province’s long-term economic prospects.
The major cuts in funding to legal aid announced in the province’s recent budget will also exacerbate backlogs in the courts as more people, particularly those with low incomes, will find themselves without representation.
Cuts in funding to conservation authorities for flood protection seem to contradict the words of the government’s own November 2018 “made in Ontario” environment plan, which acknowledged of the impacts of climate change, including increased risks of flooding.
Yet even in this context, two recent decisions stand out as particularly significant examples of this pattern, the first related to energy conservation, and the second to the delivery of front-line public health programming. Both these areas are characterized by very high ratios of long-term benefits to immediate costs, and therefore should appeal to a government focused on value for money and “respect or taxpayers.”
Energy conservation — in the form of such things as replacing older inefficient, lighting, appliances, heating and air conditioning systems with newer models that provide the same services while using far less energy — is widely acknowledged as the cheapest and most efficient way of meeting energy needs and reducing consumers’ bills.
Conservation measures can also play a major role in managing peaks in electricity demand and stabilizing the grid. The Ford government seemed to acknowledge much of this in its environment plan, which highlighted the benefits of energy conservation.
Ontario’s 2014 Conservation First Framework had established a province-wide structure for conservation efforts. It established funding and inventive mechanisms, conservation targets at the provincial level and for Hydro One and local electricity utilities, and programming targeted at sectors ranging from low-income households to large industry. The framework was widely regarded as highly effective.
Virtually all of this was eliminated by the Ford government in March, when the province terminated its entire framework for electricity conservation.
Energy conservation measures, particularly for buildings, that had also been central components of the provincial climate change strategy ended with the elimination of the cap-and-trade system as soon as Ford took office.
All that remains of the province’s once comprehensive strategy are some programs for industry and the low-income sector. Utility-provided programming related to natural gas remains intact for now, although there is no certainty regarding its long-term role. The short-term gain from all of this will amount to less than $10 per person per year.
Electricity shortage looming
While province has a surplus of electricity for now, that situation is going to change significantly over the next few years with the looming and dangerously overdue retirement of the Pickering nuclear plant, and with reactors at the Darlington and Bruce facilities coming off-line for refurbishment.
Conservation would be the least costly and lowest impact option to fill these gaps, yet the province has just eliminated much of the foundation of experience and capacity needed to respond to these emerging needs. Electricity costs can only rise as a result.
Short-changing public health
While there was a brief reference to moving energy conservation off electricity rates in the 2018 Progressive Conservative platform, there was no mention of cutting funding to local public health programming. That changed dramatically with the Ford government’s first budget.
The budget included a $200 million cut in funding for programs delivered by local public health units as part of a proposed restructuring and consolidation of the units.
In the case of the city of Toronto, this will amount to a withdrawal of 50 per cent of provincial funding. These cuts will go directly to front-line public health services — vaccination programs, the management of infectious diseases, health inspections of restaurants and food vendors and drinking water safety.
Local medical officers of health have pointed out that these cuts are likely to “have significant negative impacts on the health of residents.” The chair of the Toronto Board of Health has been more direct, stating that “people will die” as a result of the cuts.
Less direct cuts to public health services and oversight were implicated as contributing factors to the May 2000 Walkerton drinking water contamination tragedy, in which seven died and nearly 3,000 were made seriously ill. The Ford government’s moves are more direct, affecting front-line delivery of public health services.
It’s difficult to imagine a more short-sighted choice in a time marked by re-emergence of serious infectious diseases, like measles, that were thought to be virtually eradicated in Canada.
Both energy conservation and public health services suffer from the relative invisibility of their benefits — they are about avoiding costs and preventing bad outcomes. This may partially explain why they were targeted by the Ford government. At the same time, both sets of decisions seem to demonstrate a remarkable incapacity to think or recognize benefits beyond the shortest of terms.
The government’s moves are consistent with an apparent emerging Ford doctrine of short-term gain for long-term pain. That doctrine carries with it major risks of embedding long-term structural costs for the province and its taxpayers, while undermining their ability to deal with the economic, social, environmental and health consequences.