It’s Time to Prepare Plans for Pandemic-Related Issues

Ontarians recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland. Of course, that liberation started months before on the beaches of Normandy with the largest seaborne invasion in history.

In a stroke of dumb luck, Axis commander Erwin Rommel was absent from the front lines that day. German intelligence incorrectly predicted poor weather on June 6th, 1944, which would have made an invasion impossible, so Rommel returned to Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Without their commander, the German forces reacted slowly, and the invasion established a beachhead before Rommel could return to Northern France, setting the stage for the end of the war.

The moral being: even the most trusted advisors cannot predict the future.

When it comes to the Ontario political scene, it is refreshing to see that lesson has been learned by our political actors. Finance Minister Rod Phillips, whose portfolio requires him to put out budgets and financial updates that are grounded solely in the ability of the civil service to predict the future, recognized this last week when he said, “specific answers as to when we will recover [from COVID-19] are questions nobody can answer, unless they have a crystal ball, and if they do I’d like to borrow it.”

As we approach the months ahead, the recovery from COVID-19 is in uncharted waters. Jurisdictions like the United Kingdom have turned to a mathematical equation to determine their re-opening plan. Other places like South Korea have already had some reopenings but the simple act of one asymptomatic man walking into a bar has led to 1,900 people being tested, 40 new positive cases, and the re-shuttering of 2,100 entertainment venues.

Even though the future is uncertain, there are tough decisions ahead that the Ontario government should start thinking about in earnest. Though the government may not be able to answer the questions just yet, they should prepare for that day to arrive soon.

The Minimum Wage Debate

Many have argued the COVID-19 pandemic has caused society to reconsider what type of work it values, with those receiving the lowest wages becoming some of the most essential workers. Naturally, that conversation has led to renewed enthusiasm for increases to the minimum wage or the need for a guaranteed basic income.

With businesses struggling to stay afloat as is, higher labour costs upon reopening will likely be untenable. For a host of reasons to numerous to fit here, a guaranteed basic income is also a very bad idea. Conservative thinkers need to start to tackle this inevitable debate with solutions that keep in mind the benefit of free markets, that value private sector risk, and that reward workers for the fair value of their labour.

In 2018, the solution was the Low-Income Individuals and Families Tax Credit. In 2020, the government should start by considering a variety of solutions including: strengthening that tax credit, temporary income supplements for essential frontline workers like Prince Edward Island is doing, or mandating tips for frontline servers.

What to do about the 1-per-cent wage increase

Despite a lengthy and tumultuous battle with Ontario’s teachers, the government ultimately held fast on its wage cap legislation that mandates a 1-per-cent increase in pay for public sector workers. Public polling showed that more Ontarians agreed with the government over teachers that 1 per cent was enough of a raise.

Up next though are Ontario’s nurses and, after a courageous battle with COVID-19, it is highly unlikely that the public will support the government in any wage battles with these workers. Giving the nurses more than a 1-per-cent raise would likely see previously negotiated agreements up for legitimate dispute, including the teachers’ agreements.

To rectify this, the government will need to get creative. A temporary at-risk bonus for any nurse who worked through COVID-19? Capitulation on non-salary issues brought to the table by nurses? Beefing up pensions as compensation?

What to do About Health Administration

In addition to nursing salaries, the administrative side of the health system will need some serious thought. The premier has suggested a desire to continue with plans to centralize public health units, but what to do about Ontario Health teams is still an open question after their creation was paused at the start of the pandemic. Additionally, long-term care will certainly need to be reviewed after the immediate COVID-19 crisis has passed. The government will need to seriously consider who does what within the health care system.

How to Return to Partisan Politics

Right now, the fights between Ontario’s provincial and the federal government are a thing of the past. Provincial-federal relations look like a veritable love-in to the naked eye. That, inevitably, will change as the COVID-19 jurisdictional nightmare reaches its conclusion.

The lines have already been blurred on employment assistance and municipal financing. It promises to get worse if infrastructure projects become part of any recovery plan, with New Brunswick already raising concerns about being told what they can fund with Ottawa’s money. The Bank of Canada is even buying provincial debt. Though a necessary action, it blurs the lines of jurisdiction beyond comprehension.

The provincial government should start to think about when and how they want to disagree with the prime minister. Do they want to demand more money for health care or transit? Do they want greater autonomy over immigration programs or not? Do they want to fight the carbon tax again? If they answer yes to any of these questions, they will have to decide how to make the case in a way that shows the premier has grown as a leader and a statesman.

Even though Phillips is correct that the government does not have specific answers to the questions about recovery, he and his colleagues will need to think about what those answers could look like.

To complete the Rommel analogy, the Germans may have gotten the weather forecast wrong, but at least they realized the weather would be a deciding factor.