Their relations are chilly. Their politics clash. Their personalities differ. But Charles Sousa and Joe Oliver have a common dilemma: unless Ontario starts pumping out jobs, their governments are in trouble.
For the federal finance minister, time is of the essence. His boss, Stephen Harper, is counting on his reputation as a solid economic manager to stay in power. The prime minister won the 2011 election by convincing Canadians they needed a “steady hand on the economic tiller” in uncertain times. In each of their four budgets since then, the Conservatives have promised to create jobs.
But as they approach the final year of their mandate, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. Last month, it climbed to 7.1 per cent, as the U.S. continued its five-month decline, reaching a post-recession low of 6.1 per cent. Since 2011, when voters gave the Conservatives a parliamentary majority, Canada has slipped to fifth place in job creation among the G-7 countries.
The weak spot in the labour market is Ontario, which lost 34,000 jobs in June. It is also the principal battleground in the 2015 election.
For the Ontario finance minister, the challenge is equally important, but less pressing. His boss, Kathleen Wynne, just won a fresh mandate. Her government has promised to put Ontarians back to work, but it has four years to revive the province’s moribund job market.
The remedies the two governments are offering are diametrically opposed.
Oliver is prescribing an all-out push to eliminate the federal deficit, followed by tax cuts and further debt reduction. “Our commitment to balanced budgets is the cornerstone of our economic action plan and it will ensure Canada’s prosperity, create job opportunities and raise our standard of living,” he told the Economic Club of Canada in Calgary shortly after his appointment this spring.
Sousa intends to tackle the job drought, then mop up Ontario’s red ink. The province will be deficit-free by 2018, he insists. But right now he is creating a $2.5-billion Jobs and Prosperity Fund, which will allow the government to provide subsidies and investment incentives to business and a $29-billion transportation fund to get people and goods moving. “We will make the necessary investments to grow the economy, create jobs, build new public transit and roads for people and communities,” he said in his budget speech this week.
Clearly the two men are not on the same wavelength — and probably never will be. But that doesn’t mean they have to fight in public. Considering their shared stake in ending Ontario’s employment slump, they could at least stay out of each other’s way. The 568,000 Ontarians who need a job would be better served by a two-track strategy than by two ministers working at cross-purposes and denigrating each other’s efforts.
Regrettably, they’re off to a poor start.
Four days after the Ontario election, Oliver publicly called on Wynne to launch an aggressive attack on the province’s deficit. “We hope that her government will follow our lead toward a balanced balance,” he said. “Canada cannot arrive at its potential if the biggest province remains in difficulty.” Sousa responded in kind in this week’s budget. “We are looking for a partner to treat Ontarians fairly,” he said. “Our economy needs a boost, but we have a federal government that is doing more to hamper that recovery.”
This sort of sniping benefits no one — not the jobless, not the economy, not the people of Ontario.
There is a more sensible strategy. Let Ottawa focus on improving business confidence while the province provides direct financial support to employers. Work together in areas where the two governments can mesh their efforts, such as job training. Agree that Ontario must exercise fiscal discipline and stop fighting about its deficit-elimination deadline.
All it would take is a milligram of maturity on both sides. The two finance ministers don’t have to like each other. They just have to get along well enough to turn Ontario’s jobless recovery into a real return to economic health.