Seven months ago, Ontario voters were promised the moon by the Liberal Party of Ontario. Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals vowed to end the attacks that marked nine years of Tory rule. Indeed, the entire Liberal campaign focused on the slogan of “Choose Change.” Sadly, the Liberals’ new budget shows that there has been no change in Ontario, and that McGunity and his cronies are intent on continuing the assault on Ontario’s working class.
During the election campaign, McGuinty emphasized how the Liberals were going to govern differently than the Tories. McGuinty promised to improve working conditions in the province, particularly for non-unionized workers who are “protected” by Ontario’s draconian Employment Standards Act. He promised to finally raise Ontario’s minimum wage (which had remained stagnant at $6.85 per hour since 1995), as well as eliminate legislation that allowed capitalists to force workers to work as much as 60 hours per week. He also promised to treat teachers and other public employees “with respect,” and to end attacks on unions, which had been a hallmark of the Mike Harris/Ernie Eves years. In addition to all of this, the Liberals promised to improve public transit, build more social housing, make post-secondary education more affordable, protect public Medicare in Ontario, end the privatization of government services, etc., etc., etc. In other words, they promised workers everything that they could hope for.
However, Canadian Marxists are very much aware that the Liberal Party has never been a champion of the working class. Instead, the Liberals are the darlings of the capitalist class. It is no different with McGuinty’s Liberals. Just when it appeared that the Ontario Liberals might be leaning towards the left too much, McGuinty signed a pledge with the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation. (Contrary to their name, the CTF mainly represents the interests of corporations.) In this pledge, McGuinty promised not to raise taxes (especially corporate taxes) and he promised not to run a deficit.
Lo and behold, the Liberals were “surprised” to learn that they had somehow inherited a $5.6 billion deficit from the Tories. (This number somehow increased to $6.2 billion in the budget.) During the entire provincial election campaign, the Liberals had supposedly based their promises on the assumption that the Ontario Tories had carried a balanced budget, although even the NDP knew that Ernie Eves was carrying a massive government deficit. Suddenly after the election, McGuinty was telling voters that “painful decisions” were going to have to be made and that many of his promises would not be kept.
Workers flocked towards the Liberals because they promised to be the opposite of the Tories. Whereas the Tories had rewarded the bourgeoisie in Ontario with massive tax cuts, loans, subsidies, “consulting” contracts, etc., the Liberals were promising to ease the lives of Ontario workers. The reality is completely different. McGuinty and the Liberals are attacking the working class to a GREATER degree than the Tories did!
The main low-light of the Liberals’ budget is the implementation of medical premiums (prior to this, only Alberta and British Columbia charged medical premiums). Instead of raising the health-care tax that is paid by employers, the Liberals decided to place a greater burden on workers. What is offending Ontario workers even more is who is being affected by the new premium most.
Unlike income tax, the new medical premiums are actually a regressive tax. In other words, a poor person has to pay a greater percentage of their income than a wealthy person does. For example, someone earning $36,600 per year will be forced to pay $450 in medicare premiums (which works out to 1.23% of their annual income). On the other hand, someone making $200,600 per year or more will only have to pay $900 per year (or 0.45% of their annual income). Furthermore, each working person in a household has to deduct this premium from their individual income earned. Thus, two working parents, each earning around $36,000 per year, will pay greater health care costs than the CEO of a large corporation! (Figures are based on numbers published in the Toronto Star.)
McGuinty and his finance minister, Greg Sorbara, are also trying to reassure people that the Ontario government cares for poor people, so it is exempting anyone earning less than $20,000 from the health care tax. $20,000? Has McGuinty or any other Liberal crony attempted to live on $20,000 in Toronto?
The medical premium is not the only attack on working people. To cut costs, McGuinty and Sorbara have decided to de-list several procedures that have been covered under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Beginning in September, OHIP will no longer pay for eye exams, chiropractic care, or physiotherapy. The latter two are especially important for workers that may be injured on the job. Now, the Ontario government is punishing them for working for a living! Many working class people will no longer have the ability to take proper care of themselves because it will be too expensive to do so.
Unfortunately, the bad news does not end there. The budget is also increasing a number of user fees that directly impact workers. (For example, the cost of receiving or renewing a driver’s licence is going to increase by 50%.) Although the Liberals finally froze post-secondary tuition fees in Ontario, they remain the second highest in Canada. Also, the freeze only extends until 2006 and the Liberals have been very quiet on what will happen to tuition fees after this date.
The Liberals have attempted to portray themselves as the friends of the working class, and that they have had to resort to these measures because of the “evil” Tories. They claim that unlike the Tories, they have raised the minimum wage in Ontario (by a paltry 30 cents per hour, the first increase in a decade), they have raised welfare rates by up to 3% (they’re still 30% lower than what they were in 1995, and this doesn’t include inflation), and they have frozen post-secondary tuition fees (they’re still the second highest in Canada).
However, McGuinty and co. continue the Tory tradition of finding new and inventive ways of punishing workers. As mentioned before, they have introduced the highly regressive (even by capitalist standards!) health premium. Also, McGuinty had floated two other schemes that, thankfully, were shot down by public outrage. McGuinty had mused about the possibility of introducing Dalton Days, where public employees would be forced to take unpaid “vacations.” As anyone in Ontario remembers, NDP premier Bob Rae was booted from office thanks because of the anger that resulted from Rae Days. In addition, the Liberals had been intent on introducing a so-called Fat Tax that would have eliminated the PST exemption on restaurant meals under $4. The supposed rationale behind this was to convince people to eat healthier by making fast food more expensive. However, the working poor correctly saw this as another attempt to attack the living standards of the working class. When someone is forced to work two part-time jobs to make ends meet, they don’t always have time (or the money) to prepare a home-cooked meal and often have to resort to cheap fast food. By taxing these meals, working people would have even less take-home pay and a further decrease in their standards of living.
The Liberals have made sure that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better for Ontario workers. Already, several media commentators are predicting a great deal of unrest between the government and public sector workers, including mass layoffs and pay cuts (Michael Hlincka, CBC Toronto, http://toronto.cbc.ca/features/on_budget_2004/analysis.html). However, these attacks are serving to increase opposition. The Ontario working class is ready to fight! As mentioned, the McGuinty government had been fully ready to implement Dalton Days and the Fat Tax, but it was the working class’ outrage that frightened the government off. The provincial election was also another example of how Ontario workers have had enough with capitalist attacks on them.
There can be no compromise with the Liberals or the Conservatives. They may pretend to represent the best interests of the working class, but this is a lie. These bourgeois parties represent the interests of Canada Steamship Lines, Magna, and Bay Street. These interests are not the same as those of workers. Capitalists aim to exploit labour to its fullest extent. (This is one of the first lessons in Economics 101.) It is the capitalist system itself that forces the bosses to slash and cut back. It is utopian to believe that these attacks will end while capitalism remains. There is no such thing as “friendly” capitalism and the movement must adopt a program that reflects this. As evidenced in Ontario, workers are ready to fight!