Analysis

Kathleen Wynne braces for pushback on Ontario austerity plan

Though it sets up what is sure be a nasty battle with public-sector unions, Kathleen Wynne has put a premium on transit and infrastructure the 2015 budget.

Addressing infrastructure 'neglect' won't come cheap and public-sector unions are ready for a fight

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa, right, unveiled an Ontario budget on Thursday that puts a focus on infrastructure and transit. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

On the morning after the release of Ontario's budget for 2015, the government's work is only beginning at Queen's Park, but the direction set by Kathleen Wynne is well known. 

​Insiders say Wynne has made it clear she is "absolutely determined" that the budget plan will be put in place, even while privately conceding there are "difficulties" ahead and her "political DNA" would suggest selling off government assets would be the last thing she would want to do. 

But from the start of her time in the premier's office Wynne has left no doubt that on her watch, transit will be built, expanded and improved. Roads, highways and bridges will be upgraded. Period. 

That takes money. A lot of it. Hence the gamble that selling off 60 per cent of Hydro One will be acceptable to Ontarians and bring in $4 billion when all is said and done. 

Is it a good deal? Time will tell. But once an asset like Ontario Hydro is gone, it's gone forever. Wynne knows that more than most. Again though, her message is clear: It has to be done. 

The money is needed to address decades of what she has said publicly — and privately — is infrastructure "neglect."

Liberal insiders say she often says "it's time" to address these problems. The premier also knows that in the weeks ahead other difficult decisions must be made.

She has ordered deputy premier and Treasury Board President Deb Matthews to go through government programs with a fine-tooth comb to determine if they are "relevant, effective, efficient, and sustainable." If the answer is no to any or all of those questions, the programs will be gone. The question is: will the jobs go with them? 

"Cut" is a word that has been wiped from the government's computer hard drives and replaced by "constraint."

Will 'constraint' mean public-sector job losses?

Either way, the end result could be the same: job losses. It's one thing to talk about the "path to balance" by 2017, it's another to do it.

Union leaders in the province, including Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan, have a sense of what may be coming and they don't like it one bit. But as Ryan told me in a post-budget chat, Kathleen Wynne can be a tough opponent, especially when she's made up her mind.

Other public-sector union leaders agree and they're girding for a fight, seeing Wynne as the Liberal version of Mike Harris.

The premier recoils at this comparison and rejects the suggestion that "Tim Hudak-style" job cuts are possible, especially since she campaigned against the former PC leader's plan to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs and may have won her majority because of it.

There are billions to be cut if the government is to balance its books by 2017, even with a forecast of higher revenues and a slowdown in government spending.

Greg Lyle of Toronto-based Innovative Research Group describes the budget as "brave" and one that takes on "difficult issues." 

But Lyle also says while it contains its share of difficulty for the Liberals, the budget also includes "time" — time before the next provincial election in 2018.

So it could be that if something in the 2015 budget — entitled "Building Up Ontario" — is building up in the wrong direction, it could be changed, delayed or shelved altogether.

In the meantime, Wynne is pushing ahead with her agenda as her pension advisor (and former prime minister) Paul Martin once observed on another issue "come hell or high water."

About the Author

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for CBC.ca. He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.

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