Doug Ford’s Phony Budget Consultation Survey

The Ford Government is now engaged in public consultation for its 2023 budget. The consultation takes three forms: in-person presentations to the legislature’s Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, traditional written submissions to the committee, and completing an online survey. The online survey is the fastest and most user-friendly. Developing surveys of this kind to inform policy makers is one of the innovations of online government.

The survey, posted on the Ontario Government’s website, has nine multiple-choice questions, asking your views about your top priorities for the government, for the budget, for health care, for your community, for transit and infrastructure, for filling labour shortages, for making Ontario a more attractive destination for people and business, and for increasing affordability. Finally, it asks which region of the province you live in. It will be available until February 10.

What is Missing

What is most remarkable about the choices given is that they never include the following words or phrases: climate change, environment, renewable, sustainable, conservation, green, or greenbelt. The environment is not the only priority that isn’t mentioned. The word culture also doesn’t appear, not even in the question about making Ontario an attractive destination. Higher education appears only in that question, but not in questions about improving health care, filling labour shortages, or improving community services.

The questions all have the option of checking “other” and then writing in a comment. The survey is structured so that climate change, environment, higher education, and culture aren’t serious priorities, but rather “write in” priorities.

We can wonder how the survey came to be this way. Was it developed by public servants, who put forward a broader set of priorities and choices, but then vetted by political staff in the Finance Minister’s or Premier’s Office? Or did the public servants self-censor, because by now they knew what would and wouldn’t be acceptable to their political bosses?

As a contrast, the federal government is also in the field with a pre-budget consultation survey that asks similar questions. It includes climate change, the environment, research, and post-secondary education, though not culture. And rather than asking just about the region of the province where you live, it asks your postal code, age, family income, and status as one of several minorities. It’s a much better survey than Ontario’s.

Not a Surprise

On the one hand, these absences are no surprise. This is the government that opted out of the cap-and-trade agreement with Quebec and California, cancelled green energy and electric vehicle subsidies, and fought the carbon tax in court and with gas-pump stickers. But it is commissioning gas-powered electrical capacity, building Highway 413, and fast-tracking subdivisions in the greenbelt. Nor has the Ford Government shown much enthusiasm for higher education or culture. By omitting the environment, higher education, and culture, it is stacking the deck for the consultation survey to tell it what it wants to hear.

The Meaning of Populism

On the other hand, these absences are a surprise. The Ford Government prides itself on its populism, on being a government “for the people” – its 2018 election slogan. Populism means listening to the people and stacking the deck to diminish some people’s voices is not consistent with populist ideals.

Plausible Deniability

The Ford Government has often been secretive, for example its court fight to keep ministerial mandate letters secret. We are unlikely to see the results of this survey released in any comprehensive way, such as providing regional breakdowns for every question and a summary of the most frequent “other” answers. Maybe the Ford Government wants to have the results of a biased survey available so that it can cherry-pick answers to deny that the public cares about climate change, the environment, culture, or higher education.

Complete the Survey Anyway

When confronted with a survey that is as biased as this one, what should a citizen who is interested in government priorities and public policy do? I would urge people, especially those who care about the issues the Ford Government is suppressing, to complete it anyway. Perhaps there will be more “write in” answers than the Government expects and perhaps the “write in” answers will call out the Government for setting the survey up in such a way that “write in” answers were their only choice. Even if you think the Ford Government isn’t listening, it’s important to speak, especially if the Government thinks it can get away with not listening.

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