When Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources served "surplus notices" to 142 of its workers this week, informing them that their current jobs are being eliminated, it prompted a predictably unhappy response from the union representing the province's public employees.
The reality, though, is that a whole lot more pain was supposed to be felt. And the fact that it won't be is reflective of how the government's priorities have shifted since the past winter's change in premier.
By the end of last year, sources say, MNR was ready to implement a much harsher plan – one that would have slashed hundreds more jobs and significantly curbed services. Just before the cuts were to be announced, the government decided to hold off until after the governing Liberals' January leadership convention to select a replacement for Dalton McGuinty. And after Kathleen Wynne emerged victorious, she opted to restore $40-million of a planned $70-million cut to the ministry's base funding in 2013-14, blunting most of the impact.
While he would not get into specifics, Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti acknowledged in an interview that the previous approach would have eliminated approximately 400 more positions – including scientific researchers and conservation officers – and forced the shutdown of between 10 and 15 field offices, mostly in the North. Now, the only regional office slated to close is a one-person operation in the eastern Ontario community of Tweed, and Mr. Orazietti is able to boast that by filling 272 current vacancies. The ministry will actually enjoy a net increase in its employment, with many of the people who got notices this week staying on in different capacities.
While the change in plans will not have much impact on the province's $10-billion deficit, it is indicative of the softer touch Ms. Wynne has brought to running the province, and in particular of her attempt to rebuild bridges with regions that felt mistreated by Mr. McGuinty.
By the end of his time in office, with his minority government drawing most of its support from the Greater Toronto Area and a few other urban centres, Mr. McGuinty appeared willing to risk further anger in northern and rural Ontario as he tried to get back toward balance. Ms. Wynne, who named herself Agriculture Minister in hope of proving she's not Toronto-centric, has backed away from policies such as unloading the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission and ending funding supports for the horse-racing industry.
Preserving MNR jobs may not curry favour with all northerners, given mixed views on its conservation efforts. But as Mr. Orazietti noted, closing regional offices would have forced some of them to travel long distances for permits and other services.
It would also have economically affected some smaller cities where the ministry is a significant source of employment, which ties in to a broader shift in perspective as well.
With unemployment in Ontario stubbornly staying above the national average, Ms. Wynne and her advisers are currently making much of viewing every decision through the lens of its impact on jobs. With that appears to come an aversion to relatively indiscriminate cutting of government positions.
In the case of these particular jobs, such hesitation was well-founded. MNR was heavily gutted during the Mike Harris era and, unlike other ministries, was not restored to previous form when the Liberals took over. Already fairly lean, it's probably not the best place to squeeze further.
It's worth noting, however, that when former finance minister Dwight Duncan called on ministries to find savings, MNR was among the few to come back with something aggressive. That it was deemed too aggressive by the new regime is unlikely to escape notice by other departments, as the province enters its next budget season.
One thing Ms. Wynne has not changed since taking over from Mr. McGuinty is his 2017-18 target for returning to budgetary balance. What remains to be seen is which path she intends to use to get there, because it's clearly not quite the same one her predecessor favoured.