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Warren (Smokey) Thomas’s presentation to Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs at Queen’s Park

We the North
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Click here to watch Warren (Smokey) Thomas, OPSEU president, make a presentation to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs at the Committee Room 151, Main Legislative Building, Queen's Park, Toronto on February 1, 2016, re: the 2016-17 Ontario Budget.

Below is a full transcript of his remarks.

Good morning. I’m Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. With me today is our Political Economist, Randy Robinson.

We’re here today representing 130,000 working Ontarians.  Those of you who have been in public life for a while should know the work OPSEU members do. We know how to restart your heart. We run the tests that diagnose cancers. We stop teenagers from committing suicide. We protect women and children from domestic abuse. We keep the courts running. We keep drinking water safe. We keep workplaces safe. We supervise those accused of crimes, and those guilty of crimes.

If you want to be a journalist or a heavy-duty mechanic, we can teach you. If your child needs a student loan, we can help.  I could go on and on. The point is, our members use their skills in an incredible variety of jobs. The work they do is an indispensable part of the fabric of life in this province. I couldn’t be prouder to represent them.

As MPPs, your most important job is to make sure these people have the support they need to keep on serving Ontarians. That’s what the provincial budget is for. Now, I’ve been saying this my whole career. But in this forum, I’m starting to wonder why I bother. I talk to regular people every day. And what I’m seeing is a serious disconnect between what Ontarians need and what the government is doing. 

In a 2014 study of political influence, two American academics looked at close to 1,800 policy changes made by the U.S. government. What they found was shocking: “Not only do ordinary citizens not have… substantial power over policy decisions,” they found. “They have little or no independent influence on policy at all.”[1]

So you can see why Bernie Sanders is doing so well right now: He is tapping into a growing awareness among many Americans that what ordinary people think just doesn’t matter. And I am sad to say we have the same problem here in Ontario. If you need an example, look no further than Hydro One.

Eighty per cent of Ontarians oppose the privatization of electricity transmission.[2] They don’t like the loss of public control and public oversight. They are worried about prices. They are worried about losing the revenues Hydro One brings in.

And according to our Financial Accountability Officer, they are right to be worried. In October, Stephen Leclair told us that selling Hydro One won’t make money for the province, it will cost money. It’s a silly idea.

On the government’s budget consultation web site, not selling Hydro One is the second-most popular idea there.[3] Yet the government is selling it anyway.

Of course, this doesn’t surprise me when the Acting Premier of Ontario is an ex-banker named Ed Clark.

Here’s a man who thinks full-time employees in LCBO stores get paid too much because they get overtime on weekends. Meanwhile, his pension is $200,000 a month.[4] 

It takes a lot of nerve. But that’s one thing the ruling class in Ontario is not short on. I’ve talked before about the web of connections that link this government and the Liberal Party to the richest companies in Canada. I won’t labour the point here – you can read about it in our booklet called “It’s in their DNA.”[5]

But here’s the key message: there is an elite class in this province, and it controls the broad themes of the provincial budget.

That may explain why Ed Clark’s son, Bert Clark, can use his post at Infrastructure Ontario to spend $8 billion too much by funneling public dollars to public-private partnerships – and still have a job.

All the money we’re losing on asset sales and P3s goes to profits. All of it comes out of public services. If I go back to the government’s budget consultation web site, the most popular option put forward by Ontarians is that we should fully fund health care in this province.

Note that it says “fund.” Not “fix,” but “fund.”

Yet this government is killing health care. We rank last out of all provinces in public hospital funding per capita[6], and we’re just as far behind right across the system. I have members in home care who get paid $17 for a home visit that can take up to two hours.

In every area of health care, private operators are swarming like flies. They suck their profits out of workers and patients alike. Privatization is hurting quality of care.

Now, budget problems are not unique to health care. Ontario has the lowest overall program spending per capita of any province in Canada.[7]

The government brags about this; it should be ashamed instead. We should be striving to have the best public services in Canada – not the cheapest. The funding situation for public services is so desperate that some colleges have opened campuses in Saudi Arabia – openly violating our provincial human rights code while the government looks the other way. This is both ridiculous and unnecessary – especially at a time when there is so much money around.

I mentioned last year that in early 2015, Ontario broke the previous record for Gross Domestic Product per capita. It’s a fact: there is more money in this province, per person, than ever before.[8]

Yet working people are broke and up to their eyeballs in debt. Government is broke and up to its eyeballs in debt. But Ed Clark Nation is thriving. In 2014, the top 100 CEOs in Canada made close to $9 million a year on average.[9]

Corporate Canada’s massive cash hoard shows no sign of being invested in job creation; in fact, the last Ontario budget showed that business investment was so weak it was actually dragging economic growth down.[10]

So in the communities where my members live, we’re seeing stagnant wages, weaker public services, and fading hopes. This government is working fine for the Ed Clarks of the world. It’s just not working for the rest of us. Growing inequality is staring right at us. Our fellow citizens on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program see its face every day. I sincerely hope this committee will recommend a significant increase for all those on social assistance so they can at least feed themselves and their families. And I don’t mean six dollars a month.

Our Premier likes to present herself as a progressive. For example: on January 23, she put out a tweet saying, “Together, we can close the gender wage gap.” Well, let me tell you what she’s doing about the gender wage gap.

First of all, she’s pushing the gender wage gap wider by cutting real wages for the most female sector of the whole economy: the public sector. The Liberals have been doing this for more than five years now.

Second, the amount of money she’s saving by cutting public services is comparable to the extra public dollars she’s pouring into infrastructure.[11] The lion’s share of that money is going into construction, a sector that is 88 per cent male.[12]

Third, the Wynne government is cutting wages for women by ending funding for pay equity for women in what’s called the “proxy” sector.

In OPSEU, we have 180 bargaining units where the Liberals have stopped funding pay equity. There are hundreds of other units in the same position.

Tens of thousands of women – mostly with modest incomes – are being denied money they are owed by law. Many of them will never reach a pay-equity compliant rate of pay before they retire, or die.

As in Saudi Arabia, this is a human rights violation, pure and simple. And it’s increasing the gender wage gap.

We need to deal with inequality in our society – not just between women and men, but between the social classes. Ed Clark Nation is stealing our public services, our public assets, and our public dollars.

We need to get them back. It’s not hard to figure out how. Our finances are out of balance because of two decades of tax cuts in this province. The net result is that public coffers are missing $20 billion a year in revenues.[13]          

Tax cuts were supposed to make us all rich. Instead, they’ve reduced us to fighting over scraps.

This has got to end. This budget must include significant revenue increases to breathe some life back into our public services. And those revenues must come from the individuals and corporations who have profited so handsomely from their perch at the top of the food chain.

We’d be pleased to take your questions now.

Notes:

[1] Gilens, Martin and Benjamin I. Page (2014). “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 12 No. 3, September, 564-581.

[2] Environics Research Group (2015). “Ontario Attitudes on Hydro One Privatization.” Toronto: Keep Hydro Public, September 3. Available at http://keephydropublic.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2015-09-11-Environics-Keep-Hydro-Public-Ontario-IVR-Poll-Report.pdf.

[3] Government of Ontario (2016). Budget Talks: have your say.” Web site: https://talks.ontario.ca/.

[4] Alexander, Doug (2014). “TD’s Clark to Get $2.23 Million Lifetime Pension.” Bloomberg News, February 21. Web edition: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-02-21/td-s-clark-to-get-2-23-million-lifetime-pension.

[5] Ontario Public Service Employees Union (2015). It’s In Their DNA: the Liberal Family Tree. Toronto: Ontario Public Service Employees Union. Available at http://opseu.org/sites/default/files/2015-04_its_in_our_dna_report_b.pdf.

[6] Canadian Institute for Health Information (2014). National Health Expenditure Database.

[7] Sousa Charles. Building Ontario Up: 2015 Ontario Budget papers. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 198.

[8] Statistics Canada (2016). CANSIM tables 384-0038, 051-0001.

[9] Mackenzie, Hugh (2016). Staying Power: CEO Pay in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Available at https://www.policyalternatives.ca/ceo2016.

[10] Sousa, 235.

[11] The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculates that annual spending on public services in Ontario is $6.9 billion a year less, in real terms, than it was in 2010. Infrastructure spending in Ontario in the first nine years of this century averaged $5 billion a year. Since the stimulus budget of 2009-10, however, infrastructure spending has averaged more than $13.3 billion a year – an $8 billion increase. Sources:

— Block, Sheila and Kaylie Tiessen (2015). “Short-term gain for long-term pain: Ontario’s 2015 Fall Economic Statement.” Toronto: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, November 26. Blog: http://behindthenumbers.ca/2015/11/26/short-term-gain-for-long-term-pain/.  

— Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure (2011). Building Together: Jobs & Prosperity for Ontarians. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1. Available at http://www.moi.gov.on.ca/pdf/en/buildingtogether_en.pdf.

— Antunes, Pedro and Jacqueline Palladini (2013). “The Economic Impact of Ontario’s Infrastructure Investment Program.” Toronto: Conference Board of Canada, April 5, 3. Available at http://www.conferenceboard.ca/e-library/abstract.aspx?did=5425.

[12] Statistics Canada (2016). CANSIM Table 282-0078.

[13] Block, “Short-term gain for long-term pain.”