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Political theatre at Queen’s Park

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Dear sisters and brothers:

A government budget is usually a political statement dressed up as a financial document. The March 25 Ontario budget was no exception.

We already knew, or could guess, what was going to be in it. The Throne Speech and various media leaks drew a pretty good sketch. But one thing in the budget was actually news: the McGuinty government will stop new funding for future wage increases for the people it pays. People like OPSEU members.

The Liberals won’t try to re-open existing contracts or impose unpaid “Dalton Days.” Instead, they just won’t give public sector employers any money to pay people more.

If you are heading into bargaining, the budget means you’ll be offered a pay cut. That’s because a zero per cent increase is actually a two per cent decrease, after inflation. And if you won’t accept a cut in pay, there’s always the layoff option.

You may think, “Well, if the budget is all about restraint, I guess this is what happens.” But the budget isn’t about restraint. In fact, a quick look at the numbers shows that government spending will rise by over $8 billion this year. That amounts to an overall increase of 6.9 per cent.

Granted, much of this money will go to good things. There’s money for daycare. For training and education. For more Employment Standards Auditors to catch bad employers who cheat their workers. That’s all good. But if this budget is not a restraint budget, then why cut back on the salaries of the public servants who, according to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, “make a valuable contribution to the health and well-being of this province”?

It’s not like the money saved will amount to much. According to the minister, it’s $750 million over two years. That may sound like a lot, but it’s barely a third of what he’ll give the boys in the boardrooms when his corporate income tax cut takes effect July 1.

In effect, the minister is saying that the worker who takes the bus to her job as a $20,000-a-year casual at the LCBO is responsible for the deficit, while the guy who drives his BMW to a $950-a-plate McGuinty fundraiser is not.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Public sector wages in Ontario are far from being too high. Our overall public spending is the second-lowest of any province or territory in Canada.

Corporate taxes in this province are not too high. They are the same as U.S. rates.

But polling shows that many voters believe our spending is too high, and many believe corporate tax cuts create jobs. (In fact, they are one of the least effective things a government can do to create jobs.)

People believe these things because it is what they are told, day after day, by corporate-owned think tanks, right-wing bloggers, and the conservative news editors who support an employer’s agenda, not a people’s agenda. But just because people believe something doesn’t make it true.

Public employees are not the only victims of this budget.

More than 600,000 poor Ontarians scraping by on social assistance and Ontario Disability Support will see their meager incomes cut by inflation. Over 300,000 of these will lose the special diet allowance they used to buy nutritious food. Apparently they too are to blame for the deficit.

Despite the global recession, we live in a province that is wealthy. Yet the way that wealth is shared is increasingly unfair. The budget makes scarcely any mention of the workers, private and public, who are struggling to get by on low-paid, part-time, temporary jobs. The budget offers no hope for the poor. And it does little for the hundreds of thousands of people – including children, for goodness sake – who need, but can’t get, the vital public services we provide.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a compassionate society is possible. A fair society is possible.

But it will never happen until those of us who aren’t part of the “in” crowd at Queen’s Park build our power and become players in the political theatre that takes place there.

In the 18 months between now and the next election, we’ve got a lot of work to do – in our workplaces, at our bargaining tables, and in our communities.

The 2010 budget is just the beginning of that work.

In solidarity,

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President
Ontario Public Service Employees Union

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