Voters to Ford: Focus on Healthcare and Housing

As part of public consultation for its 2024 budget, which will be presented on March 26, the Ford Government posted a survey on the Finance Ministry website. Though the government did not publicize the survey, it received 3500 responses. The government did not publish the results. I filed a Freedom of Information request, and the Finance Ministry FOI staff quickly sent me an Excel file with the raw data.

The survey consisted of nine multiple choice questions, asking respondents about their top priorities for the economy, for the budget, for infrastructure, for healthcare, for filling labour shortages, for community services, for making Ontario an attractive destination, for keeping household costs down, and for new growth opportunities.

The clear takeaway from the survey is that better healthcare and more affordable housing are the respondents’ top priorities. This was the case for priorities for the economy (healthcare 28 %, housing 25 %), for infrastructure (healthcare 29 %, housing 23 %), and for community services (healthcare 27 %, housing 24 %). The question about making Ontario a more attractive destination didn’t include healthcare as an option, but affordable housing was the most popular choice (26 %). In the question about new growth opportunities, respondents ranked life science and medical advancements (23 %) ahead of the Government’s marquee policies of supporting manufacturing investments (16 %) and electric vehicles (13 %).

The question about the budget itself provided only four choices: managing the cost of inflation (31 %), providing support to groups within the population to keep costs down (29 %), lowering taxes using credits for certain expenses (15 %), and eliminating the deficit (10 %). The Government will likely interpret this question as showing public support for a budget that reduces prices it can control or influence but that does not cut taxes or move quickly to eliminate the deficit.

There are some responses the Government won’t like. Asked how it should keep costs down, the most popular answers were increasing affordability of essential goods and increasing options for rental and affordable housing (both 24 %). Eliminating fees for government services, of which vehicle licence fees was a controversial first step, was the least popular option (5 %). The question about infrastructure priorities ranked public transit (20 %) a close third after healthcare and housing but ranked highways dead last at 3 %.

Unfortunately, the survey reflects some of the Ford Government’s well-known biases. The words “climate change,” “environment,” and “Greenbelt” never appear in the survey. The survey mentions apprenticeship, skills training, and education supports but it never mentions education itself. The questions all give respondents the option of checking “other” and then adding a response. A search of all these responses found the word invest (usually in public education or public healthcare) mentioned 1000 times, education mentioned 860 times, and words like green, environment, renewable, and carbon mentioned a total of 470 times.

Given the significance of the budget, governments traditionally gauge public opinion by inviting briefs and holding hearings. They listen but do not reveal their thinking. Part of the rationale for official reticence about intentions is to avoid affecting markets.

Surveying public opinion is another consultative mechanism. Many governments, likely including Ford’s, do their own confidential public opinion polling. A survey posted on the website is an addition or alternative to confidential polling. The Ford Government’s budget consultation survey would be more accurate if it diverted some of the public funds it is spending on feel-good advertising to encouraging Ontarians to complete the survey and if it included in its multiple choices options and phrases it finds uncomfortable such as “environment” and “climate change.”

The results of the online consultation are obtainable through FOI requests, as I have done. To enhance public discussion, I will send the Excel file with the raw data to anyone who is interested. The Ford Government, or indeed any government that conducts an online budget consultation, could obviate FOI requests by simply making the data publicly available. This would enhance discussion of the budget by increasing awareness of what the public are thinking before the budget is presented. Government would still keep its cards close to its chest, but it would benefit from more informed public discussion.

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