It’s been nearly five months since MPPs sat in Ontario’s legislative chamber at Queen’s Park, so Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives have a lengthy to-do list.
After making change at a breakneck pace during the first year in office, the Ford government has more recently taken the pedal off the metal. Expect the pace to pick up again now that the federal election campaign is over, eliminating the risk of causing controversies that could hurt their Conservative cousins.
Since the PCs adjourned in the legislature in early June, Ford has altered the face of his government. He made a significant cabinet shuffle, and his controversial chief of staff Dean French resigned amid accusations of nepotism.
Here’s what the Ford government is expected to do in the coming weeks and months:
The biggest challenge facing the Ford government this fall will be getting contract deals with the three big teachers’ unions without a strike. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) are in the midst of taking strike votes and their contract talks have bogged down. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) is also preparing to take a strike vote that would conclude by mid-November.
The biggest sticking point in negotiations so far involves high school class sizes. While the government had set out a four-year plan to increase the average class size to 28 (from 22 last year), Education Minister Stephen Lecce revealed last week that he’s now proposing an average class size of 25. OSSTF president Harvey Bischof says the move would still result in the elimination of some 5,000 teaching jobs. The province wants annual wage increases capped at one per cent, while the union wants an increase in line with inflation.
Retail alcohol sales
Movement on the Ford government’s promise to allow corner stores to sell beer pretty much ground to a halt in recent months. That’s in large part because the province is struggling to negotiate its way out of a contract that would potentially see taxpayers pay the Beer Store conglomerate hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for the big increase in retail competition.
The government tabled a bill in late May to terminate the Beer Store contract but Government House Leader Paul Calandra now says getting it passed into law is not one of his priorities.
Meanwhile, Ontario winemakers are also pushing for a more liberalized sales regime. And the big supermarket chains are keen to get a piece of the lucrative booze distribution market. In this multi-billion-dollar industry, there’s plenty at stake, even if you don’t drink.
New Finance Minister Rod Phillips will deliver his first “mini-budget” on Nov. 6 when he tables the fall economic statement in the legislature. Last year’s fall statement contained the controversial moves to scrap the province’s French-language services commissioner, environmental commissioner and the children and youth advocate.
The statement will include a new, more accurate deficit figure for the 2019-20 fiscal year, as the shortfall projected back in April in then-minister Vic Fedeli’s budget was $10.7 billion. Expect Phillips to revise the 2019-20 number downward by several billion dollars.
That’s because the true deficit figure for 2018-19 was revealed last month to be $7.4 billion (nowhere near the $15 billion that Ford’s team repeatedly insisted it was). A deficit-cutting government does not want its shortfall to grow year-over-year.
Health sector reforms
The government is poised to announce the creation of its first wave of Ontario Health Teams: joining hospitals, long-term care providers and home care agencies in organizations that will receive a single pool of funding from the province, with an aim of spending health-care dollars as efficiently as possible.
It’s part of the government’s plan for tackling the problem of hallway medicine by relieving the pressure on hospitals.
Watch for the hallway medicine statistics as flu season arrives: evidence so far shows the government has made next to no progress on reducing the extent of the problem since it took office.
In front of a business-friendly audience last week, Ford revealed that his government will soon reveal a plan for what he calls “affordable ownership” of homes.
He did not offer details, telling people to “stay tuned,” but added, “We’re going to unleash the contractors and let them start developing.” The government laid out a housing supply plan back in May, but Ford hinted this new program will involve some provincial government help to make it easier for people to buy homes.
Public sector wage cap
On the next-to-last-day before the legislature adjourned in June, the government introduced a bill that would cap public sector wage increases at one per cent annually for each of the next three years.
The cap would apply broadly to teachers, college and university staff, hospital workers and provincial government employees. Passing this bill into law is one of the government’s legislative priorities, Calandra told CBC News last week.
Carbon pricing battle
After hinting in August he’d consider dropping Ontario’s court challenge of the federal carbon tax if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the federal election, Ford slammed the door on that less than 48 hours after the Liberals actually won the election.
He called the carbon price “the worst tax you could ever face” and vowed to continue the court battle. Ontario’s top court ruled against the Ford government in June, saying Ottawa has the constitutional right to impose the carbon price. The province is now waiting to learn if the Supreme Court will hear an appeal.
Cannabis retail outlets
More than a year after recreational cannabis was legalized in Canada, just 24 legal retail stores are currently operating in Ontario. Another 50 retailers won licences through a lottery in August, but none has reached the stage in the approval process to open a store.
The government has insisted a shortage of legal supply of weed was the reason for the slow expansion of stores, but far larger numbers of retail outlets are operating in other smaller provinces. There’s pressure on the government to kick the retail cannabis system into high gear, so look for changes in the coming months.
Autism program changes
One of the Ford government’s biggest stumbles in its first year was the backlash it faced over changes it made to the Ontario Autism Program. The government has hit the reset button, with the new Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith admitting the previous plan was a mistake.
The province has held lengthy consultations and convened an expert advisory panel to make recommendations for a revised program. Smith says he expects to receive the recommendations in the next few weeks, and will make them public.
Last month was the deadline for bids to redevelop Ontario Place, the province’s theme park space along Toronto’s waterfront.
Although the government ruled out a casino for the space, it’s open to proposals for anything from a convention centre to sport and entertainment venues to retail shops and recreational facilities.
Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Lisa MacLeod has been non-committal about when decisions will be made.
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