By HUGH WINSOR
Monday, July 14, 2003
It might be easy for the federal government to blow off as pre-election posturing some of Premier Ernie Eves's bleatings about Ottawa's stingy response to the SARS devastation short-changing Ontario.
But Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his administration have enraged the 40 MPs and seven senators in the Greater Toronto Area caucus with their caution and seeming standoffishness regarding the impact of severe acute respiratory syndrome, both on the health-care system and on the economy of Ontario.
Though caucus proceedings are usually supposed to be secret, members of the GTA caucus are openly criticizing their government and have taken the unusual step of releasing caucus minutes to reinforce that message.
These people are at the core of the Liberals' political support, and will not be easily dismissed.
In fact, the GTA caucus has been so vocal that the Prime Minister's Office instructed Transport Minister David Collenette, the cabinet minister politically responsible for the GTA area, to tell his colleagues to tone it down.
The gist of the GTA Liberals' complaint is that Ottawa is doing too little, too late. At its meeting May 7, the caucus lashed out at the government's "lack of communications and overall co-ordination of the federal effort."
Subsequently, the caucus said help for laid-off workers was not moving fast enough and that it wanted a cabinet answer "now." The caucus has also taken a shot at Health Minister Anne McLellan for not working with provincial and local offices.
When federal contributions were ramped up with an offer of $150-million, the caucus said that wasn't enough and the government should apply the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement program, which covers costs up to 90 per cent.
Under the program, Quebec received $633-million, Ontario $130-million and New Brunswick $3.9-million to compensate for ice-storm costs; Manitoba received $150-million for the Red River flood in 1997, and Quebec got another $300-million to compensate for Saguanay floods.
But so far that program has been used only for environmental disasters. Toronto would have been better off to have dammed the Don River and flooded Cabbagetown. There is no provision to compensate for empty hotel rooms or the tour bus companies in receivership.
The feds have offered $150-million for health costs (when Ontario says the SARS bill is more than $1-billion and climbing) and $100-million for economic recovery. Figures released on the weekend claimed Toronto's tourism income from March until June was down $278-million from a year earlier.
The government is insisting Ontario doesn't qualify for the disaster-assistance program on technical and legal grounds. Finance Minister John Manley is opposed to using that model because the federal government must be transparent and accountable for money it doles out and it is impossible to determine how much of Toronto's economic loss is due to SARS. He also wants to verify the health-care costs.
Toronto caucus activist Judy Sgro reflects the caucus's frustration with the Liberal government: "We have several ministers in the caucus who are referred to as being very powerful, but they have not been able to change the policy." She says all that would be required would be direction from the Prime Minister.
"Some way or other we have to find a way to help Toronto recover as Canada's largest city."
Former defence minister Art Eggleton (who in that position was responsible for the disaster-assistance program) is chairman of the GTA caucus and is leading the charge for a bigger federal response. "The people affected by SARS are no less deserving than the people affected by the ice storm," he said in an interview. While he welcomes the $250-million offered so far and thinks Mr. Eves should accept it as a down payment, "the government is going to have to look seriously at something more than $250." Expect to hear that message even louder after the GTA caucus scheduled for this week.