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There was a note of triumph in the Canadian Snowbird Association’s announcement of its success in challenging a change in Ontario’s health-care coverage.
The association’s 100,000 members (of which I’m one) includes thousands of seniors who spend all or part of their winter in Florida, Arizona, Texas or other sunny U.S. states. The change, introduced before the COVID pandemic when Premier Doug Ford was still trying to whittle down the deep deficits left behind by 15 years of Liberal predecessors, would have eliminated medical coverage that paid a maximum of $400 for emergency out-of-country treatment.
The government argued the program was costly, and provided little help towards U.S. bills that can easily spiral out of control. Most seniors already have coverage under other plans, or have to buy private coverage anyway given the minimal amounts provided under the government plan.
Canadians have for years indicated they want a country they can’t afford
The association begged to differ. It challenged the change on the basis it violated portability provisions in the Canada Health Act. Last week the Ontario Divisional Court agreed, ruling the government lacked the authority to cancel the program. “This court ruling is not only a win for snowbirds in Ontario, but it is a win for snowbirds across our country, as this decision will signal to other jurisdictions considering similar cuts to coverage that we will not back down,” said Snowbird president Karen Huestis.
Seniors, as did most Ontarians, voted heavily for Ford and his pledge to get spending under control, even if that meant limits on future spending. Apparently their concern applied only to limits on other age groups. The ability to regularly flee Canadian winters for the warmth of the South suggests a certain level of prosperity, but old habits die hard. Baby boomers have spent a lifetime electing governments that borrowed heavily to finance generous programs to make life easier, creating a legacy of debt that future generations will have to deal with. Why stop now?
To be fair, it’s an attitude that gives every appearance of being widespread. Canadians have for years indicated they want a country they can’t afford. Borrowing soared for a quarter century after the 1960s. The few short years of surplus budgets following the debt crisis of the mid-90s crumbled under the stresses of the 2008 recession. Once better times returned, there was an opportunity to get back to balance. Instead, voters elected Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015 on a promise to ramp up spending even further. He had already far exceeded his promised deficit figures when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced those elevated borrowings to be pushed yet higher, to levels few could have imagined. Now the Liberals are promising to leave those frightening figures in their wake as they pledge a package of proposals for daycare, pharmacare, seniors care and other spending programs, with no indication of how they’d be paid for. One global credit agency has already issued a warning about “the deterioration of Canada’s public finances,” but Liberals appear determined to forge ahead anyway, and have secured the support of the New Democrats, who never oppose new spending or bad economics.
Trudeau shrugged off concerns in a TV appearance, arguing that low interest rates make anything possible. There’s no guarantee rates will stay low forever, of course, but that is evidently a problem some future leader will have to grapple with. The prime minister has always been about Big Plans, so his response is no surprise. More worrying are signs his brand new finance minister, brought in when the old finance minister evidently got cold feet, seems already to have bonded with his belief that happy talk is all that’s needed to ward off fears among the populace.
Asked by CBC about the potential costs of the Liberal blueprint, Chrystia Freeland responded: “I think the way to answer that question is to say: these are things we just can’t afford not to do.”
That’s not an answer, it’s a slogan, and a tired, empty one at that. No country can afford to live on loans forever, no matter how high-minded the programs it borrows to support. Country after country has discovered the price of that reality. Eventually the lenders get nervous, the costs go up, and a decision has to be made: cut spending or raise taxes. It’s more than a little concerning that Freeland, who has emerged as something of a super-minister in an otherwise ho-hum cabinet, would dodge an opportunity to offer some clear indication that the government understands that and has a realistic formula to deal with it, offering the same old evasions instead.
What Canada can’t afford is governments so enamoured of their own idealistic visions as to be blinded to the damage they do. Dangling goodies in front of voters is a tried and true way to get elected, but adopting debt-fuelled financing as the heart and soul of the government is a sure road to pain in the future. Just because Canada’s elders still aren’t willing to accept the truth in that doesn’t mean younger generations should continue to be stuck with the ever-increasing bill.
• Twitter: KellyMcParland
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