The Ford Government’s standard justification for its actions is that they are “for the people.” The government’s policies are, apparently, what the people want, an expression of the will of the people. Three such new initiatives are making alcoholic beverages more widely available, increasing opportunities for gambling, and increasing the speed limit on major (400-series in Ontario terminology) highways. All involve risks – increased alcoholism, gambling addiction, traffic accidents – but in every case the government expresses confidence that adults can handle the risks.
For alcoholic drinks, policy changes announced in the budget involve increasing the number of retail outlets, permitting tailgating at sporting events, authorizing municipalities to permit drinking in public places such as parks, and allowing licensed establishments (bars, restaurants, golf courses) to begin serving at 9 a.m. every day of the week.
For gambling, policy changes include establishing a competitive market for online gambling, upgrading existing casinos, and establishing new ones (confirmed in Peterborough and Pickering and possibly the premier’s dream of a “world-class” casino at Ontario Place). And, to combine gambling and drinking, the government will now allow casinos to offer free drinks and advertise the fact “to level the playing field for Ontario casinos and allow them to compete more effectively with those in the US.”
The government is proceeding a little more cautiously on fast driving, as it will be launching a pilot project to raise the speed limits on a number of sections of the 400-series highway system.
I have a number of reactions to these initiatives. If they are being done in the name of the amorphous “the people,” the government ought to consult the people. In the case of alcohol policy, it launched a public consultation and told us in the budget that it received 33,000 replies. It didn’t report on the tenor of the replies in any detail or even provide a summary; it only published a handful of supportive quotes. Why is the government “for the people” not telling all the people what the 33,000 people who participated in the consultation said? Shouldn’t the government release the results of its consultation before it promulgates new policies?
Making it easier to drink and to gamble and to burn more gasoline (at higher speeds) will all bring in more revenue in sin taxes. A government that wants to eliminate the deficit will be happy. But these policy changes will lead to more alcoholism, gambling addiction, and high speed traffic accidents. These have enormous costs, only some of which find their way into the public accounts. Has the government done any cost-benefit analysis to weigh the revenue gains against the increased social costs? The latter question is particularly relevant because we recently learned that, as a result of the Ford Government’s budget cuts, the Gambling Research Exchange Ontario will be closing. It is particularly cruel to defund an organization doing research on gambling addiction at precisely the moment the problem will be worsening.
The pilot study about increasing speed limits raises numerous issues. Transport Minister Jeff Yurek observed that speed limits were lowered in the mid-Seventies as an energy conservation measure at the time of the OPEC oil embargo. The oil embargo happened four decades ago, but what about the much more serious problem of greenhouse gas emissions, to which automobiles are a major contributor? The government says this is a pilot project. Unlike the alcohol consultation, will it release the results of the pilot study before it takes any permanent action? British Columbia undertook a consultation about speed limits in 2014, increased limits on 33 sections of its highways, but, as a result of an increase in collisions, rescinded many of the speed limit increases. Why should the results of the pilot project be any different in Ontario than in BC?
The OPP has taken an equivocal position. Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, spokesperson for the highway safety division, has reminded politicians that “aggressive driving by people operating vehicles at high speed is one of the leading causes of death and injury on our highways.” The OPP doesn’t advocate for changes in speed limits, but it will enforce the law, whatever the speed limit is. One can’t help but wonder whether, if Ron Taverner were Commissioner, the OPP would have enthusiastically supported the Government.
Beyond the details of these cases, disturbing as they are, they reveal to us what the government thinks about Ontarians. The budget’s title, “Preserving what Matters Most,” implies that drinking, gambling, and fast driving are among the things that matter most to us. Perhaps that mindset accurately describes the Conservatives’ electoral base. Perhaps that accurately reflects the world view of an uneducated premier who, it is alleged, spent his formative years dealing drugs. I would bet that it doesn’t reflect the world view of most Ontarians.
The Ford Government delivered its budget in a misleading way. The good news, which from the government’s point of view certainly includes the alcohol and gambling initiatives, was announced on budget day. The cuts were announced by public servants within government departments in the following days, and have gradually and piecemeal reached the public’s attention. After a few weeks of this, we will see what the impact of the overall budget, including detailed knowledge of the cuts it contains, will be on the government’s standing with the electorate. Booze, gambling, and fast driving won’t offset public outrage.