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Ontario Premier Doug Ford.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

You can tell an election is in the air in Ontario. The birds are singing, the Liberals are stirring up their quadrennial panic about the privatization of health care, and the incumbent government is offering a plethora of gifts in the hopes that voters will forget about past unpleasantness and again choose to lend them their support.

Indeed, the Progressive Conservatives’ hope is that you just look past that whole patronage scandal thing, forget about that time the government tried to ban playgrounds, disregard how Premier Doug Ford promised to protect long-term care homes and then did nothing, and put it out of mind that the government wasted money on license plates you can’t see in the dark. Perhaps, instead, you might enjoy the charcuterie board of taxpayer-funded gifts that is presented to the electorate every four years?

Mr. Ford’s grab bag of goodies so far includes a little bit of something for everyone. There’s the daycare deal with the federal government, which was finally settled after much delay, even though the terms of the arrangement aren’t materially different from what was initially proposed. From a political perspective, however, the timing is perfect: a deal signed just a couple months before an election is certainly preferable to one signed some time last year. Memories are short and goodwill among the electorate is ephemeral, after all.

There are presents for drivers: the scrapping of renewal fees for license plate stickers, for instance, and the removal of tolls on a couple of Durham region highways. For Brampton residents, Mr. Ford announced a $21-million, 10-year investment to expand hospital capacity. For people living in Oshawa and Ingersoll, he offered new jobs in the form of a $259-million investment (which will be matched by an equal amount from the federal government) in General Motors facilities. And for ostensibly everyone, Mr. Ford announced Monday that his government was tabling legislation to cut gas and fuel taxes by 5.7 cents and 5.3 cents respectively.

Housing is scarce in Canada. So is the political courage to do something about it

Doug Ford (and Jason Kenney, Scott Moe and John Horgan) should hit the brakes on taxpayer money to subsidize drivers

That last present will only arrive starting July 1 – after the Ontario election – when the effect of the war in Ukraine on gas and fuel prices is obviously unknown. Other provinces have opted to implement relief measures immediately; Alberta, for example, temporarily dropped its 13 cents-per-litre fuel tax earlier this month to offset rising costs at the pumps and the scheduled increase in the federal carbon tax. B.C. chose to go with a flat rebate for drivers, recognizing that gas companies could simply raise their prices in response to the province’s reduction in taxes.

In any case, if and when Ontario’s temporary reduction in gas taxes come into force, the effect on drivers will be nominal. A source told CBC News the average household will save $65 in 2022 (the province claims, spuriously, there will be trickle-down savings for households without cars in “prices paid for taxis, food delivery and consumer products”). On the other hand, lost revenue to the province is estimated to be $645-million – roughly 30 times the amount Mr. Ford recently pledged for that hospital capacity in Brampton. But what’s a cool $645-million, really, when the important thing is that it will save individuals whole dollars at the gas pump, when there is a provincial election on the horizon?

The Progressive Conservatives weren’t always so generous in the lead-up to election campaigns. Indeed there was a time, back before Mr. Ford took the helm, that the party actually preached fiscal prudence and emphasized the importance of shrinking the deficit, noting that one of the largest line items in the provincial budget was interest payments on debt.

But then the party got tired of losing, so it met then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s pre-election plethora of promised gifts – free daycare, billions for new high-speed transit, expanded drug and dental coverage, and others – with its own: hydro bill cuts, buck-a-beer, a reduction in fuel taxes, more money for kids with autism, a lower corporate tax rate, and so on.

Mr. Ford didn’t offer anything by way of a comprehensive plan to pay for it all, but it didn’t matter; Ontario was done with its era of Liberal governance, and so Mr. Ford’s plan, which didn’t include frightening words like “attrition” and “austerity,” seemed like a viable alternative.

Ontario appears to be in a better financial position today than even a few months ago, thanks to higher-than-expected revenues due to pandemic recovery. The province also has “significant unallocated funds” in its coffers that were earmarked for COVID-19 recovery, according to a recent report from Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office, that could be used for necessary investments in schools, health and long-term care.

Or, those funds could be used to offset the costs of cheap pre-election carrots. It seems Mr. Ford has already made his choice.

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