By Yusra Javed
Brian Baum’s journey from committed Conservative to president of the Ryerson Ontario Young Liberals was bumpy. Baum, 23, was once the vice-president of operations for the Ryerson Campus Conservatives and went on to intern for two Conservative members of Parliament in the summer of 2017.
“I found while working for the Conservatives it was frowned upon for me to talk about my progressive views on things like Liberal policies or services for young people,” he says. “Apparently I made someone feel uncomfortable by speaking so progressively that the party itself threatened to fire me from my internship.”
After completing his internship, Baum started volunteering for Liberal MPP candidate Carlie Forsythe the following spring. During that time, he rescinded his Conservative membership to become a Liberal party member. Ultimately, in October 2018, he became the president of Ryerson’s Ontario Young Liberals.
Baum said a factor in his political conversion was because he realized the federal Conservatives “don’t care about young people.” A growing chorus of critics point to university tuition changes, cancellation of a scheduled minimum wage increase and the relaxation of rent controls and suggest Ontario’s provincial government is displaying the same disregard.
“The premier’s government is making decisions that downplay the degree to which economic vulnerability has shifted towards younger people,” says Paul Kershaw, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Generation Squeeze, a UBC project that does research and lobbies to advance the interests of young people.
Kershaw points to data that show younger Canadians today are struggling in terms of income, jobs and housing compared to previous generations.
He notes, for instance, that it now takes 11 more years to save up for a down payment on a house in Ontario compared to 1976. Full-time earnings for young people, Kershaw says, actually fell by $4,600 per year between 1976 and 2016. A 2016 Ontario finance ministry report concluded the median income of individuals aged 25 to 34 fell by two per cent, to $35,543, between 2005 and 2015. By comparison, the median income for Ontarians aged 65 and over rose by five per cent, to $41,111, over the same period.
The overall effect, Kershaw says, is that “the quality of life for young people drastically shifted within the past 40 years.”
This is something Baum knows all too well. He currently lives in a one-bedroom apartment with two other roommates, sleeps on a bed in the hallway and eats instant ramen noodles for most meals. He says he is seeing a counsellor because his economic insecurity triggers his mental health issues and is worried that Ontario’s new student loan rules will mean that next semester he will have to choose between eating enough and paying tuition.
John Fraser, the interim leader of the Liberal party of Ontario, says the Conservatives don’t seem to accept that young people are economically vulnerable.
“If they believed that, they wouldn’t have cancelled minimum wage increases this year, they wouldn’t make students borrow more money to go to school and they most certainly wouldn’t be toying with rent control,” he said in an interview.
Younger voters had a strenuous amount of support for the Liberal platform during the last federal election. Youth voter turnout in the 2015 federal election rose 18 percentage points to 57.1 per cent, up from just under 39 per cent in 2011. The Liberals grabbed the largest share of the votes among 18- to 29-year-olds.
But former Ontario finance minister Janet Ecker, a Conservative, rejects all of the critiques. She argues the $15-billion deficit — the amount that Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said in his November economic statement was inherited from the previous Liberal government — can be addressed only by cutting excess provincial spending.
Ecker, who held various powerful cabinet portfolios under the leadership of Mike Harris between 1995 and 2002, said high debt levels are unsustainable.
“It would be nice if the provincial government could give young people a free chicken in the pot — free tuition, lower rent, keeping school programs — but if we’re going to bring the deficit down, this is the price we have to pay,” she said in an interview.
She argues that former premier Kathleen Wynne’s 2018 election strategy to raise taxes to meet the demands of social services would have done more harm than good in Ontario.
“Liberals think increasing taxes is the way forward to make, for instance, education cheaper for students. It looks like an easy answer — an easy hit, ” Ecker says, referring to Wynne’s proposed $2-billion tax hike for Ontarians, stated in the Liberal party’s 2018 pre-election budget. “Ontario already has a progressive tax system, so there is no room to tax more. It undermines economic growth in the long term.”
Kershaw suggests provincial deficits can instead be addressed with tradeoffs. He argues, for instance, that governments have chosen to prioritize reducing or holding the line on taxes and then limited spending on young people. He says young people need to turn out to vote in greater numbers so that governments pay more attention to addressing their needs. And he has pushed for governments to do generational analyses of their budgets and overall program spending so it is more clear how public funds are allocated to Canadians of different ages.
Fraser says PC policies create the context for the government to take away services from younger people. He says the deficit can be managed long term, by investing in economically vulnerable demographics. Fraser, for his part, says the deficit is not as high as the conservatives have stated, and should not be a basis to cut from the province’s most economically vulnerable citizens. But he says he’s not expecting to see any such moves in the upcoming provincial budget, or over the next four years.
“There’s nothing progressive about these Conservatives,” he says.
In the meantime, Baum is looking for a summer job to save up for next semester’s additional expenses. He’s also bracing himself for what might happen next at Queen’s Park.
“Ford has never given a platform during his campaign and after all his recent actions, I’m expecting many more cuts on young people.”