A secret cabinet draft reveals that draconian cuts to social services, first considered by Doug Ford’s government for its April budget, provoked strong internal warnings of potential human suffering, legal peril and political fallout.
Labelled “High Sensitivity — Confidential Advice to Cabinet,” the document contains unusually strong language from civil servants warning decision-makers they were jeopardizing the lives of Ontario’s most vulnerable people as the budget planning process got underway.
According to the draft obtained by the Toronto Star, massive cuts would pose “a danger to life for children and youth at risk or in need of protection.” Many families “will be at higher risk of going into crises.”
The government’s initial ambition of rapid deficit reduction, based on sweeping cuts with “aggressive timelines,” amounted to false economies likely to come back to haunt the province:
“Program cuts in one area will drive pressures in others. A shift from prevention/early intervention will drive up long term costs. . . . Decreased funding will increase pressures on other government resources (e.g. shelters, hospitals and police).”
Over and over, it raises grim scenarios about the risk of “service reductions or disruptions to the most vulnerable in our society across all parts of the province” if developmental services are cut or the highly-praised Ontario Child Benefit is sacrificed. The undercurrent of the document is a desperate attempt to talk the Tories back from the brink — and a government preoccupied with talking points to persuade people it’s doing the right thing.
The premier’s office said it could not comment on cabinet confidences. But it noted the Progressive Conservative government scaled back some of the deepest cuts proposed in the document that amounted to as much as $2 billion this year in one scenario — adding up to $11 billion over the next five years in the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services budget.
Ultimately, the cabinet settled instead on a $1 billion reduction to social services spending by 2021-22, according to the April budget. It left the Ontario Child Benefit untouched.
Two government officials, speaking without attribution, have confirmed the authenticity of the confidential draft prepared for the signature of the minister, Lisa MacLeod, and her deputy, Janet Menard, Nov. 20. They insisted it was an early draft that went through many versions before being debated by the full cabinet earlier this year as the budget fell into place under the title, “Protecting what matters most.”
Yet even if only a snapshot in time, the secret document offers a glimpse of the internal debate gripping the government in recent months as Ford’s Tories wrestled with their initial ambition to wipe out the deficit, only to discover the consequences of their unguarded campaign promises. It also shows an awareness that the government was vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy for overpromising and oversimplifying the realities facing Ontario — with strategic advice on how to persuade a skeptical public.
The 40-page deck is packed with confidential information about the operations of a $17.4-billion ministry destined to shrink in the coming years as it struggles to provide vital income assistance to more than 1 million Ontarians. But it also offers a bracing reality check for cabinet.
The perils are not only political but legal: “Potential litigation by individuals losing financial support and services. Risk is greatest for social assistance, developmental services, autism and children with special needs.”
Among the “key risks” facing the Tories could be “adverse impacts on an individual’s health and well-being.” Cuts would create longer waits for children seeking diagnosis and early intervention, “leading to poorer health outcomes.”
A get-tough approach on overpayments comes through with a promise to “explore more aggressive collection efforts e.g. re-payment terms, penalties and use of private collection agencies.”
On the one hand, the document summarizes the human toll of any decisions; on the other hand (lest the human angle fall on deaf ears) it preys on the political insecurities of ministers by warning them to brace for attacks (with talking points to defend themselves).
Ford’s fondness for pocketbook politics could be turned against him because people “will allege that the government has broken its promise to ‘put more money in people’s pockets.’ ” Similarly, the self-styled “Government For the People” faces a risk that “critics will allege that the government is not ‘for the people’ based on substantial reductions in programs serving one in 10 Ontarians.”
A corresponding section of the document, which offers “mitigation” advice to counter such criticism, is notably silent on the question of how to rebut people who throw Ford’s slogans back at him. Instead of a suggested response, it is simply blank — the government advisors seemingly at a loss for words.
Among the “strategic communication challenges” is the concern that people may not fully appreciate the wisdom of the government’s reforms, the document notes dryly:
“Many clients and families served by the ministry are in vulnerable situations and maybe have difficulty understanding changes. Changes will be portrayed as the government balancing the budget on the backs of the poor/those in need. MPP offices will be inundated with concerns.”
The document’s “proposed communications approach” promises the ministry will help with “preparing the minister” and government MPPs using “clear messaging and Q&As.” It suggests MacLeod argue “we are going to reduce red tape” while appealing to others outside government to plug the gaps.
“Government does not always have the answers, nor can government do this alone. To build a more compassionate society and help more people through challenging circumstances, we need to look to community organizations,” the document suggests helpfully.
The talk of “compassion” presages almost precisely the rhetoric invoked by the voluble MacLeod in the legislature just this week, when she called forth “the compassion of . . . society.”
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn