The Ontario Liberals are charging that the NDP made a significant mistake in their election platform that would result in bigger deficits than the party projected, tax hikes or program cuts if the NDP forms government.
The Grits held a technical briefing for media Monday morning in Toronto to show an apparent difference between how the NDP said it created the fiscal framework of its platform and how it actually did.
According to the Liberals, the NDP meant to base its platform on the expense line in the government’s 2018 budget, minus the new spending initiatives announced in the 2018 budget. Instead, the party based its platform on the expense line in the 2018 budget, minus all expense changes since the 2017 budget — and it's no small difference.
The Grits say the "mistake" is worth about $2.7 billion in the first year of the NDP platform. The NDP, however, deny they made any error.
The premise of the costing in the NDP platform was that if the party would form government, it wouldn't proceed with the spending promises the Liberal government announced in the spring budget and would proceed with its own instead, which are detailed in its platform. For instance, instead of adopting the Liberals' plan for free pre-school, the NDP would implement its own daycare promise, which would subsidize daycare for all ages, based on a means-tested sliding scale.
However, the Grits say the NDP took more than just the cost of the newly-announced programs out of its expense projection — it unintentionally cut out additional funding already baked into government spending for programs that had previously been announced, and which the NDP supports.
That's because, according to the Liberals, the NDP's platform does not figure in funding for spending announcements the government made between their 2017 and 2018 budgets that had multi-year commitments, such as a small business package, opioids crisis funding and funding for cannabis legalization, as well as a portion of the cannabis excise tax that is intended to go to municipalities.
However, the Liberals took things one step further and slammed the NDP for "cancelling" funding to new initiatives in the 2018 budget, which the NDP was clearly aware of and has proposed replacements for.
For instance, they said the NDP is proposing to cut $170 million over three years that was to fund an apprenticeship strategy — and yet the NDP is proposing to spend $171 million over three years on trades and apprenticeship programs, and is planning to pay for it out of the Jobs and Prosperity Fund the government currently uses for business grants.
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne held a press conference on the NDP platform issue Monday at the Finishing Trades Institute of Ontario, flanked by Charles Sousa and Eleanor McMahon — the province's finance minister and treasury board secretary respectively, both of whom are running for re-election.
They framed the issue as sign that the NDP isn't ready to govern.
"It's a failure of basic competence that leads to real consequences and renders their entire platform incoherent and unrealistic," Sousa said.
"It’s not, in my view, a question of character," McMahon said. "I don’t think they meant to do this. It’s a question of competence. I think they made an error, a big one. One that risks giving the appearance that they are not ready for primetime as they would have us think."
The party also provided quote from economist Mike Moffatt, who confirmed the Liberal analysis of the NDP platform: “It is clear the NDP based their fiscal plan off Ontario’s 2018-19 Budget and then carved out all spending since the tabling of the 2017-18 Budget. This carve-out means some programs already in place would not be funded under the NDP plan. As such, any of those post-Budget 2017-18 initiatives retained under the NDP platform without specific corresponding costing in their platform’s fiscal plan are indeed unfunded.”
However, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath responded by saying it's the Liberals who got it wrong this time.
"I want to assure people that the NDP numbers are, in fact, correct and it is pretty dishonest of Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals to put out the press release that they put out," Horwath said.
"I just want to clarify for folks how we got to our numbers," she continued. "We took the Liberals' 2018 budget and we replaced their new spending programs with our new spending programs. So anything that was in their base budget is still something that is part of our plan. Where we differ is we actually believe we have a better plan on the new program spending. So our program for child care, for example, is better than the Liberals' program for child care."
She also pointed out the Liberal government's budget has been challenged by the province's auditor general and Financial Accountability Office, which have said that the deficit for this fiscal year should be $5 billion larger because the auditor does not accept the accounting treatment of certain pension assets and debt related to the province's Fair Hydro Plan.
At her press conference, Wynne denied that was an appropriate comparison.
"That’s not what this is about," she said. "Our books have been scrutinized and re-scrutinized, and yes, there is an accounting dispute about some of the numbers, but the reality is that no one, neither the FAO, neither the auditor general, has said that what we said we can do, we can’t. That has never been the case."
The Liberals’ fact checking approach was similar in approach to when the party attacked the math errors in former PC leader Tim Hudak’s Million Jobs plan in 2014 — something he continued to deny throughout the campaign.
Response from Kevin Page
Before it was publicly released, the NDP's platform was examined by former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, the current head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa. He had deemed its costing of major initiatives and its grounding in the Liberal government's budget, as reasonable. However, he didn't directly consider the question at hand — whether the NDP would discontinue funding for certain programs or not — as he considered policy decisions of that nature outside of his organization's purview.
"To be frank, there is a lot of new spending for a wide range of initiatives in both the Liberal 2018 Budget and the NDP 2018 platform," he said, in an email to QP Briefing Monday. "Putting aside concerns raised by the Auditor General on budget accounting, I think it is reasonable for an opposition party to work from a government budget baseline and adjust it as they deem appropriate."
Page also called on the government to be more transparent in its budget, and provide a line-by-line listing of new measures announced between budgets.
"There are opportunities to improve fiscal transparency," he said. "I think it would be very hard for a government backbencher, member of an opposition party, or a citizen to have a good understanding of what is in the planned spending base given the significant recent increases in spending and the summary information.
"In this context, it is possible, for an opposition party to miss certain measures that may or not be contained in a baseline forecast."
-with files from David Hains in Brampton and Watford