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Reading the Tea Leaves in Ontario's Cabinet Shuffle

Reading the Tea Leaves in Ontario's Cabinet Shuffle

reminiscent of Big Leo Bernier?

THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO  ~~~~~~  June 21, 2021  (LSN)  Premier Ford has shuffled his cabinet and put in place the team for the last year of his mandate with an eye to next spring’s election.  It has been a tumultuous year for the Premier to say the least given the pandemic but with the end of the pandemic seemingly in sight, Ontario’s government now has to plan for dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic as well as the future.  Key portfolios remain in the same hands, but there are some notable changes.

Health and long-term care will continue to be important portfolios and here there is both continuity and change.  Christine Elliott remains Minister of Health and is Deputy Premier an indication of both her importance as well as the centrality of health.  As for long-term care, Merrilee Fullerton has been replaced by Rod Phillips.  This change has received a lot of media attention mainly because Fullerton’s departure is seen as a demotion and the resurrection of Phillips comes after last winter’s travel escapade to St. Barts and the theatrical staging to mask his absence.   However, going to Children, Community and Social Services is not necessarily a demotion given the size of the ministry in terms of its budget share.  And as for Mr. Phillips, well he has atoned for his sins and not allowing an otherwise competent person back into cabinet does not seem particularly productive.

The more interesting analysis and discussion with respect to health and long-term care is what the challenges are and how Elliott and Phillips will deal with them.  In the case of health, the pandemic has disrupted the system and along with everything else the FAO now predicts that it will take years to address the backlog of surgeries in Ontario that were delayed by the pandemic.  Indeed, the elective surgery backlog will reach 419,200 procedures and the diagnostic backlog will reach nearly 2.5 million procedures by the end of September 2021.  This is on top of dealing with COVID and its after-effects, the risk of another wave in the fall should the variants outstrip vaccination efforts and the human resources issues of a stressed health care sector.  This will all cost a lot of money.

As for long-term care, the long and short of the matter is that bed numbers from the early 2000s to the election of the Ford government stayed flat at just under 80,000.  The pandemic and its toll on long-term care homes resulted in thousands of beds being removed from service because they were 3-4 resident bedrooms more conducive to infection spread thereby reducing capacity even further.  On top of this the government has promised raising daily hours of care per resident from 2.75 to 4 hours, hiring 9,000 more PSWs and adding another 30,000 beds to this system.  This will all cost a lot of money,

As for money, the spring 2021 Ontario budget provided some interesting projections of spending by general category up to 2029-30.  Between 2020-21 to 2029-30, health spending is projected to rise from $66.7 to $82.0 billion.   This may seem like a lot but if you take the medium-term population projection scenario from the Ministry of Finance, assume inflation of about 2 percent and convert to inflation adjusted dollars, once the COVID-19 spending spike dissipates real per capita health spending can actually be expected to decline by about 11 percent from 2022 to 2029.  In moving forward their priorities, one hopes that both Elliot and Phillips are really good friends with Peter Bethlenfalvy who remains Minister of Finance though his Treasury Board responsibilities now go to Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria.

In other news of note, Ross Romano is no longer Minister of Colleges and Universities and has been moved to Government and Consumer Services.  One suspects there has been some displeasure with the handling of that portfolio by Minister Romano given that Ontario is the first province in Canada to see a university declare insolvency and seek creditor protection under the CCCA while simultaneously creating two new universities – Hearst and NOSM.  Such a feat of creative destruction has not gone unnoticed and the move to Government and Consumer Services is hopefully not a strategy to put Minister Romano in charge of a process to have the entire province of Ontario's operations seek CCCA protection given the ballooning size of the provincial debt and deficit.

The new incoming minister for Colleges and Universities by the way is Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop who moves there from being Associate Minister for Children and Women’s Issues so this is definitely a promotion.  Given that Minister Romano was from the north and thoroughly disrupted a northern university, one is a bit concerned that there may be a curse attached to this portfolio and Minister Dunlop may be fated to disrupt post-secondary education in Simcoe County.  That is of course the home of Lakehead’s Orillia Campus and one wonders if we are in store for the freeing of yet another institution from its administrative shackles by creating another stand-alone university?  Residents of Simcoe County who are planning to create an Orillia University Liberation Army may want to take notes from the Dean of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.  In a recent virtual town hall, the Dean apparently referred to creation of a new medical university separate from Lakehead and Laurentian as “Emancipation.” I suspect that no one ever truly realized that the poor medical students in northern Ontario had actually been enslaved for the last fifteen years.  

On a final note, Greg Rickford is truly now King of the North.  The MPP for Kenora-Rainy River, assumes a merged role as Minister of Northern Development, Mining, Natural Resources and Forestry, as well as Indigenous Affairs.  Mr. Rickford has gained a reputation as being quite competent and unlike some ministers, he never makes the boss look bad.  He follows the last true King of the North who was Leo Bernier, a minister in the Davis government of the 1970s.  And another of my favorite northerners and the only current cabinet minister I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, Vic Fedeli, remains Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade and is Chair of Cabinet.  Congratulations to both Mr. Rickford and Mr. Fedeli. 

Kenora, Sault Ste Marie, North Bay, Ontario

#LSN_TBay #LSN_ONNews

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The Northern Economist blog started on Shaw Webspace as commentary and analysis of economic issues and policy from a Northern Ontario perspective by Livio Di Matteo, Professor of Economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. It had regular posts from November 2010 to February 2012. Posts continued on Northern Economist 2.0 until 2013 when I took an extended break. Occasional posts resumed effective December 2016. With Shaw terminating its blog space functions, I have archived the old posts at: northerneconomistarchive.blogspot.ca.

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