Peter Bethlenfalvy faces challenge of a postpandemic budget as Ontario’s new Finance Minister


Treasury Board president Peter Bethlenfalvy takes over as leader of Ontario’s economic recovery from the pandemic at a time of record deficits, sweeping business closings, job losses and record numbers of COVID-19 cases.

He will deliver a provincial budget this spring in which he will need to grapple with mountainous debt and increasing calls for stimulus spending.

Premier Doug Ford appointed the Pickering-Uxbridge MPP as Finance Minister on Thursday after Rod Phillips resigned from the job in a controversy over a vacation in the Caribbean island of St. Barts he took while federal and provincial governments warned the population against travel.

“This appointment will help ensure economic stability in the months ahead, as we support Ontario families, workers and businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we chart our path to long-term economic recovery,” Mr. Ford said in a statement.

Mr. Bethlenfalvy, 60, is the third finance minister since Mr. Ford’s government took office in 2018. He will continue as president of the Treasury Board, which controls government spending. He faced criticism for his decision to cap public-sector wage increases at 1 per cent last year, a contentious issue during education negotiations.

He takes over during the province’s “worst recession in modern history,” said Craig Alexander, chief economist of Deloitte Canada.

The province’s budget in November included a deficit of $38.5-billion, dwarfing those reported after the 2008 and 1990 recessions, while committing $187-billion in spending.

With the federal and provincial governments spending billions of dollars to soften the blow of the pandemic, the country has yet to see the full impact of the economic downturn, Mr. Alexander added.

“The province had to shut down business, but that comes with a large economic cost,” Mr. Alexander said. “When I think about the challenges that the Finance Minister will face, he’ll be dealing with a weak economy and more businesses will need additional support.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business looks forward to working with the new minister, but expects “improved financial supports for small firms hit hard by Ontario’s harmful lockdown measures,” president and chief executive officer Dan Kelly said in a statement.