Government Commitments: What are they Worth?
By now, we have all heard from the various stakeholders about the province’s cancellation of the $305 million funding promised by the previous Liberal government for three new campuses in the GTA belonging to the joint projects of York University and Seneca College, Wilfrid Laurier Univerity and Conestoga College, as well as Ryerson University and Sheridan College. This sudden event seems to have upset everyone, regardless of their political leanings. The common denominator in this collective outrage is that no one saw this coming. Even the new government admits that it will have to likely face some "wind-down costs", as their spokesperson Merrilee Fullerton conceded following the government's surprise announcement.
Is it a conservative notion that the provincial government should be engaged in these projects at this time or at some time in the future? Are there other projects which are more suitable? There are plenty of questions that could be asked, and this is undoubtedly an issue that deserves debate. So, why wasn't there one? Doug Ford could have put this on the ballot and let the voters decide. Though he may justify the bold move by saying he went after the Liberal government for its financial recklessness, the question now becomes: what good are the provincial government's commitments? This currently suggests that any commitments made by the provincial government are not worth the paperwork. What are the implications of that?
This issue is bigger and more consequential than the $300 million commitment, or the larger provincial budget deficit, or the disgruntled participants, or the opportunities thousands of students will no longer have. What hasn't yet become a story in the press is the legal language that allowed Doug Ford to get out of these commitments. If this is boilerplate stuff that is traditionally included in all provincial financial commitments, giving it an “out,” so to speak, then we can count on this language being an issue with any future commitments that the province makes.
Just imagine that a new hospital project is undertaken with funding from the provincial government. What good will any commitments from the provincial government be, given the precedent created by the elimination of the most significant funding for these post-secondary institutions? After so much time has passed and so many ancillary commitments have been obtained (most of them either because of, or heavily influenced by, the province's initial commitment), how will the current provincial government be held to these promises? At what point does it become immoral to back out of a commitment that has incurred so much in the way of costs, spawned so many participants, and created so much propulsion? The sudden and unexpected unilateral stop and the unexpected causes that come with such decisions result in significant hardship to everyone involved—in this case literally tens of thousands of people.
We ought not to mistake the issue here; a discussion about the role of government, at any level, is always a good debate to have. The issue that this case raises is: should we be debating about whether or not the provincial government should be reliable when it comes to the promises it makes? Our government is a representative government for the people. The pledges made by the government should only ever be considered for reversal by direct referendum or as part of the debate during an election campaign. The perfidious surprise that Doug Ford sprung on the universities, the cities, the participants, and all his fellow citizens, will forever place in doubt whether or not the assurance given by the provincial government has any integrity at all—and that can’t be good for anyone. He should reconsider immediately.