By Mitchell Davidson
When reflecting on the 2008 financial crisis, famed billionaire Warren Buffett once said “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Well, the early days of COVID-19 have left millions of Ontario’s workers and thousands of its businesses exposed in the low-tide that is Ontario’s current economic picture. It’s now the job of the government to hand out towels.
Institutions that we thought were doing just fine are now cracking under intense pressure. For example, in just a matter of a few weeks, the Federal government has learned that the nearly $23 billion a year Employment Insurance system has major flaws (starting with its name which was changed away from Unemployment Insurance in 1996). To respond, the Feds have created a temporary Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to fill the gaps, but soon they will have to decide what the permanent future of Canada’s employment support system will look like.
For the first time in generations, Canadians will have to evaluate their long-standing programs to determine why they exist and how they need to be reformed to achieve their intended goals.
At times like this, the traditional political decision-making matrix goes out the window. If you wanted to make auto insurance more affordable this time last year, you could force discounts for a clean driving record or for having snow tires. Today, you get a discount for just owning a car and continuing to pay your bill. Things are different now.
Simply put, Ontario will not be exempted from this period of self-reflection and realignment. Big questions need to be asked and even bigger answers need to be given. To help do this, the Ford government has rightly created the Ontario Jobs and Recovery Committee to act as a central body to deal with these existential questions.
Surprisingly, the Premier himself is not a member. Therefore, that committee will be informed by the Ministers who sit on it and the portfolios they represent. By extension, that means by the bureaucracies each Minister controls.
Knowing that the government will spare no expense to get people back to work, the conversation will likely be predictable. Rest assured, the Minister of Red Tape Reduction will advocate cutting Red Tape, the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry will advocate investment in the logging industry, and the Minister of Energy will propose discounts to industrial electricity rates.
These ideas may all work in some capacity, but they are not a coordinated and thoughtful approach to the crisis at hand. The worst thing that can happen to Ontario is that each arm of the civil service remains isolated and focused within its own domain. This committee cannot be turned into a lineup of Ministers asking the Minister of Finance for handouts like he is Don Corleone unable to refuse a favour on his daughter’s wedding day. The Ministers need to think about Ontario’s geographies and its class structures, not just about its individual business sectors.
The Ontario Public Service needs to adapt too. To the civil service, COVID-19 is like a ski resort chairlift. Each pole passed on the way up the hill is another containment decision made – the closure of schools, the limitation to groups of 5 or less, etc. When you reach the top of the chairlift, which in this analogy is the flattening of the curve, the chair turns back around. One by one, it passes those poles again on the way down, allowing the bureaucracy to reverse the earlier decisions – allowing groups over 5 and returning children to the classroom.
But, COVID-19 is not linear. We will not be going back to the way things were. Cases may surge in waves. Certain areas of the province may recover faster than others. Even if some normalcy were to return – like restaurants opening for dine-in service again – we would still demand tables be six feet apart, hand sanitizer be readily available, and servers be tipped more than usual.
The important task for the politicians and bureaucrats supporting the Jobs and Recovery Committee is not to think of COVID-19 as a department by department recovery effort. Every area of recovery is intertwined. We cannot return the tourism industry without proper containment of the virus or an increase in household disposable income. If they think of each department as its own island, they will fail.
The civil service in Ontario is exceptional and bright. If they are forced to step back and look at the big picture, they can do great things. Political staff and politicians need to challenge the civil service with big questions and reward them for creative answers.
Are the federal-provincial Labour Market Agreements really set up for COVID-19 recovery? Why are women in the labour market disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and what can government do to fix that? If we are serious about a domestic supply chain, how do we get there? With municipal finances in dire straits, is it time to re-evaluate who does what? What does inequality look like post COVID-19 and how do we address it?
The civil service presents well informed options, but political staff and politicians make the decisions. Now, more than ever, they need to work together to think of more options and more transformations than just the simple reversal of decisions past. We need more of the thinking that produced the concept of subway uploads, free tuition programs, the Regional Opportunities Tax Credit, or the Canada Child Benefit.
Now is the time to throw ideas at the wall and see if they stick. Innovation and bureaucracy do not normally go hand in hand, but today they must. Decision makers need more than just cross-Canada jurisdictional scans. It’s the time for transformational thinking from everyone available – think tanks, the private sector, political staff, the Opposition, and most definitely from the civil service. Thinking outside the box means getting this right, and getting this right means securing a bright future for Ontario.
The political decision-making chart always used to start with the simple mantra “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Under COVID-19, it’s the workers of Ontario and their businesses that are going broke, so that means everything is eligible to be fixed.