Ontario Liberals use throne speech to make big spending promises for health care, child care

Ontario's Liberal government teases what voters should expect in its upcoming pre-election budget in a speech from the throne, promising significant new spending on a wide range of programs and issues.

Speech sees Liberals promising more spending on health, home care, child care

Ontario's Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in off-white, is flanked by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne as she prepares to deliver a speech from the throne. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Ontario's Liberal government teased what voters should expect in its upcoming pre-election budget in a speech from the throne on Monday, promising significant new spending on a wide range of programs and issues. 

The address comes as the province prepares for a June 7 election.

Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell hinted that Premier Kathleen Wynne's government intends to invest in new programs and expand on a number of initiatives already in place.

Notably, she said that funding to reduce hospital wait times and increase access to home care for seniors and mental health care is coming, as well as an expansion of the OHIP+ program beyond children and youth. Similarly, the scope of who will qualify for post-secondary grants will widen.​

Dowdeswell speaks at Queen's Park on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Dowdeswell did not specify who may be covered under an expanded OHIP+, which provides select medications free to Ontarians under 25, but did say "other parts of the population" will now be included.

She also signalled that there will be changes to dental coverage.

"More people without a drug or dental benefits plan will have access to more affordable prescription drugs and dental care," Dowdeswell said.

Wynne prorogued the legislature last week to set the table for today's speech and has denied it's an attempt to wipe the slate clean before the vote on June 7. The Ontario NDP called the move a "stunt," while the Ontario PCs decided to hold a "unity rally" on the same day as the address. 

The speech comes a week before the government is set to table its 2018 budget, which is expected to include a deficit of about $8 billion the Liberals say is necessary to beef up spending on health care, child care and support for students.

"After delivering a balanced budget this year, your government has made a deliberate choice to make more investments in the care and the services that the people of this province rely on," Dowdeswell said.

"As a result, the 2018 budget will show a modest deficit next year of less than one per cent of our GDP, and outline a path back to a balanced budget."

The speech comes just months before the provincial election on June 7. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Speaking to reporters, Finance Minister Charles Sousa said it would be "precarious" to pursue a balanced budget and health care supports simultaneously, adding that the current measures strike the best compromise.

"We can continue to balance, or we could continue to make these other investments that stimulate economic growth as well," he said.

"We're choosing to do that with a moderate deficit next year in order to accommodate all those areas."

The Liberals also took the opportunity to tout their record after 14 years in government.

In particular, in her speech Dowdeswell pointed to the minimum wage hike — set to increase again to $15 next Jan. 1 — and Ontario's cap-and-trade program. Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford, the front runner in recent polls, has come out against both policies.

The speech made no mention of rising hydro rates that have contributed to historically low popularity rates for Wynne and which are expected to be a key issue at the ballot box when voters go to the polls. Polling suggests that Wynne will need to make up significant ground on Ford if the Liberals are to maintain their grip on power in the province.

Health care the hot topic

Health care is clearly emerging as a central theme in the run-up to the official start of campaign season.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was at Queen's Park on Monday morning to provide more details on her party's $1.2-billion proposal to provide dental care coverage for everyone in the province.

Speaking to reporters, Horwath said that an NDP government would "absolutely" run a deficit, but she said it was necessary because of Liberal fiscal mismanagement.

Horwath also committed to convert student loans into grants that would not need to be repaid, improve long-term care for seniors, de-privatize Hydro One and raise taxes for "profitable" corporations.

Horwath dismissed the Liberals' planned health-care measures as carrots dangled in anticipation of the looming vote and suggested the Liberals plan for improved dental care was cribbed from her own platform.

"The difference is New Democrats actually believe these things and will implement them upon being elected," Horwath said, adding that the Liberals often change their tune after they've already been voted in.

"We believe in these things before elections and after elections."

'These cheques are going to bounce' 

Meanwhile, Ontario Progressive Conservatives took the opportunity to dig at the Liberals for over-promising and spending money they don't have. 

"We see now they're just prepared to throw away money," said MPP Lisa MacLeod. "If any of these priorities actually meant something to them, they would have done something about them in the last 15 years."

Lisa MacLeod, a PC MPP for Nepean-Carleton, told the press following the speech from the throne that the government had decided to go on a "spending spree" in the "eleventh hour" before the election. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

PC Leader Doug Ford also let the Liberals have it, releasing a statement that criticized Wynne for "trying to buy votes from a few of us."

"Today, the premier wrote a lot of cheques," said the statement. "I can tell the people of Ontario that these cheques are going to bounce." 

With files from The Canadian Press