The Ontario government’s response to the line-by-line spending review Ernst & Young just completed on its behalf may become the defining element of its four-year mandate.
The review finds the Province’s operating expenses have been growing at an inflation-adjusted rate of about three per cent a year, while its population has increased by just 1.9 per cent over the same time period. Had increasing expenditures been linked to population growth, the province could have saved $331 billion over the same time period — and that’s a good chunk of the deficit Ontario has accumulated and now pays nearly $13 billion to service annually.
It also found that of the government’s spending, nearly 90 per cent is transferred to broader public service agencies working on the government’s behalf like school boards, Local Health Integration Networks, hospitals, colleges and universities, municipal departments and other arm’s-length delivery agencies.
Picking up on a common tone in reports from the auditor general and the financial accountability officer over the years, the authors of the review suggested that more could be done to introduce evidence-based funding models in service sectors and to reduce silos and duplication. Where there’s opportunity to find back office efficiencies through information sharing across government departments and consolidating and streamlining the people providing services, the review suggests that economies of scale could be found.
Frankly, that makes a lot of sense. The public demands oversight from its elected officials to know that tax dollars are being spent in the most efficient manner possible and despite increasing expenditures citizens remain frustrated by wait times for health care or by lacking resources in classrooms. It’s time wasteful spending was curtailed and more dollars made their way to the front lines. The Progressive Conservatives have always said there’s a better way to manage government services and, now, they appear to have a mandate to do just that. They must govern smarter, rather than raising taxes and spending more.
Critics of the review have suggested that it is simply a blueprint for cutbacks in the public sector and resulting job losses. That wouldn’t be a popular decision and it would likely curtail the chances for this government to make changes that would last beyond an election cycle.
While austerity may be needed, slashing and burning isn’t the answer. Retraining and repurposing resources to ensure more optimal results is the path forward. Modernization and reliance on technological advancements is needed. It’s imperative, also, that the government find a way to work with the public sector to push in the same direction.
As the Ernst & Young report suggested, the implementation must also include establishing a clear mandate for change. Rash decisions and surprises aren’t going to be welcomed by the general public. Some change can be achieved in a matter of months but others, the others suggest, may take until the end of this government’s mandate. Consultation and careful planning is required.
When Ontario voters gave this government a majority mandate, they sent a message that they wanted better governance than they felt they were receiving. Now that the numbers are in, it’s time for their choice to live up to that lofty goal. How the Progressive Conservatives deliver that change will be closely monitored over the next four years.