CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO DIALOGUE – At first glance, the news release announcing a massive consultation on education issues seemed to bury the lead – the controversial sex-ed curriculum isn’t mentioned until five paragraphs down, half-way through the fourth of six bullets. But there were a whack of other potential story lines, as the consultation will visit a range of contentious topics. Premier Doug Ford’s Tories will be asking Ontarians about far more than sex-ed, inviting input on touchy subjects like “back to basics” teaching in math and science; better preparing students with “needed job skills” and “important life skills” like financial literacy (reigniting the age-old ideological tug-of-war over whether education’s basic purpose is to prepare kids to be workers or philosophers); measures to improve standardized testing (sure to miff teacher unions who want the province-wide tests eliminated altogether); and steps to ban cellphones in classrooms (which could create a generational war, with young people – and many of their parents – loath to cut their digital umbilical cord). Sex-ed itself – the ostensible catalyst for this consultation – is decidedly underplayed, bundled along with mental health and legalization of cannabis in a point about building an “age-appropriate” Health and Physical Education curriculum. Coinciding with the beginning of the new school year, the consultations will include an online survey, regional telephone town halls and a “submission platform” for groups to present detailed proposals.
PARENTAL DISCRETION – Submerging sex-ed in a much broader education re-think was interpreted by some as the Tories trying to mitigate an issue that is not playing particularly well for them. But it was front-and-centre regardless, thanks largely to the “interim” curriculum Ford announced for the coming school year (reverting to the 1998 curriculum for teaching on sexual matters in elementary schools) and the Fortheparents.ca website launched as a portal for parental feedback. The latter was immediately decried by critics as little more than a “snitch line” – as it advises, “any parent who believes that their child’s teacher is jeopardizing their child’s education by deliberately ignoring Ontario’s curriculum” should contact the Ontario College of Teachers. Ford himself directly threw down the gauntlet to teacher unions (see For The Record, below), inflaming tension that will only increase as negotiations for new teacher contracts get underway in the coming months.
SEE YOU IN COURT – While Ford’s Tories look to consult widely, City of Toronto politicians are only concerned about the views of one person – Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba, who will hear their arguments to overturn recently-passed provincial legislation shrinking the size of Toronto council. Most legal minds think the challenge will fail, inasmuch as Queen’s Park appears to have total authority over municipal governance. But this is somewhat unprecedented territory, in that the changes were brought in mid-way through an election campaign, so the outcome is not a sure thing. In any case, opponents of Bill 5 will be making plenty of noise leading up to the August 31 hearing. “Today’s the day that we take a stand,” proclaimed Councillor Josh Matlow (a former provincial Liberal candidate), who put forward the motion that launched the legal challenge. “This is an affront to democracy … we will take this to the Supreme Court if necessary.” Despite all the rancour on both sides, the political fallout could be largely moot. While losing in court would obviously be an embarrassment for the new government, Ford’s majority does not include any MPPs in downtown Toronto – ground zero for the fight against Bill 5 – so the Tories aren’t much worried about losing support.
CIVIC ACTION – Ford took another shot at Toronto this week as he addressed the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference, criticizing the city for pulling out of AMO 13 years ago when lefty David Miller was Mayor. “It’s a missed opportunity for Toronto not to be participating in some capacity,” Ford lamented. At the same time, he assuaged fears among delegates from the province’s other 440 municipalities, assuring them, “many of Toronto’s issues are specific to Toronto” (read: Toronto’s council is too left-wing) and that he has no plans to intervene in anybody else’s administration.
Other notes from the AMO conference in Ottawa:
The thousand-seat hall was overflowing for Ford’s speech, with some 300 attendees standing at the back. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath attracted a full house, but the other party leaders dramatically less so. In a stark indication of how the mighty have fallen, less than a quarter of the seats were filled for interim Liberal Leader John Fraser’s address (see photo), a far cry from the crowd then-Premier Kathleen Wynne drew a year ago. Wynne, notably, was in the front row as Fraser spoke – opting to maintain her visibility despite her election debacle in June. Attendance for Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner’s speech was similar to the Liberal draw, but he was thrilled just to be at the podium as an MPP for the first time.
Wynne was on hand for Ford’s speech, standing at the back of the ballroom and overheard to mutter her disapproval of Ford’s remarks. At one point Ford referred to “repairing crumbling infrastructure” and Wynne exclaimed, “Oh, please” loudly enough to be heard by a dozen people.
Cannabis legalization was a hot topic throughout the conference, as municipalities try to get their heads around issues like policing and how much revenue they might generate from sales in their jurisdictions. For the most part they seemed okay with the Ford government’s approach. A group of mayors met with Finance Minister Vic Fedeli and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney and were reportedly happy with the way it went. Afterward, one mayor enthused, “It was positive, collegial and open to new ideas – in a way I’m not used to based on past dealings with the Ontario Government.” That mayor, by the way, is a known Liberal.
Sunday night a reception thrown by local MPP and cabinet minister Lisa MacLeod in a Byward Market pub was packed. Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark was, understandably, a popular guy in the bar with a steady stream of courtiers wanting to chat.
Since old politico/lobbyist haunt Hy’s Steakhouse closed several years ago the race has been on to see which Ottawa watering hole would be the new insider hotspot. If AMO was anything to go by, the hands-down winner is the Metropolitan Brasserie. This stylish resto, located between Parliament Hill and Sussex Drive, was a popular destination for conventioneers. Among the luminaries spotted there Monday night were MacLeod, Mulroney and cabinet colleagues Greg Rickford, Sylvia Jones and Monte MacNaughton.
DRIVING HOME HIS POINT– Whatever other issues may clutter up the new government’s agenda, Ford knows his bread-and-butter is affordability. Hence this week’s latest pocketbook announcement: a freeze on driver fees that were slated to increase September 1. “People are fed up with paying more and more every time they need to renew their licence or take a driving test,” Ford was quoted in the news release alongside Transportation Minister John Yakabuski. Lest anyone miss the bigger point, he added a now-familiar line (inserting “drivers” in the appropriate slot), “This will make life more affordable for drivers right across the province. This is the latest example of our government putting money back where it belongs — in the pockets of hard-working Ontarians.”
CASTING SHADOWS – When the House reconvenes in exactly one month, the 40-member NDP caucus will have specific roles. Horwath unveiled her shadow cabinet this week, assigning critic roles topped by two Deputy Leaders in rookie MPP Sara Singh (who is also Critic for the Attorney General) and veteran John Vanthof (who also takes on Agriculture, Food and Rural Development). Note that Vanthof’s role refers to “Rural Development” – not quite the same as the “Rural Affairs” Minister he will be shadowing. Other discrepancies in titles also send messages about NDP priorities, with some critics assigned portfolios that don’t exist on the government side. Jessica Bell is Critic for Transit, separate from Transportation and Highways (Jennifer French), Rima Berns-McGown is responsible for Poverty and Homelessness, and Wayne Gates has Health and Safety and the WSIB (apart from general Health Care, which is the purview of France Gélinas). Other stand-alone critic duties: Percy Hatfield takes on OLG and Horse Racing; Bhutila Karpoche, Mental Health and Addictions; Terence Kernaghan, LGBTQ Issues; Gurratan Singh, Auto Insurance; Faisal Hassan, Youth Engagement; and Jennie Stevens, Veterans, Legions and Military Affairs. Sandy Shaw takes on the all-important Finance and Treasury Board files, while her successor in that role, Catherine Fife, has been assigned to Jobs, Employment, Research and Innovation.
Updated Ontario Legislative Highlights charts listing MPP responsibilities and government contacts are now available. Click on the following links to download:
AIDES NETWORK– Now that the Legislature has recessed, the new government’s transition has resumed in earnest. Many cabinet ministers endured the session with minimal staff support, and are now in the process of staffing up. Among those now employed at Queen’s Park is Ben Levitt, the PC candidate in Hamilton West, who has been named issues manager for Health Minister Christine Elliott.
FOR THE RECORD
“We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.”
Premier Ford, rebuffing teacher unions who vowed to protect members teaching the modernized sex-ed curriculum that Ford repealed.
“The Premier is running an employment agency for lawyers.”
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, scoffing as legal action piles up, including a Canadian Civil Liberties Association challenge of the sex-ed rollback.
“I think when the Prime Minister, when confronted with some of the problems his government has created, turns around and fearmongers and calls people un-Canadian or racist, [he] really debases the debate that we’re having.”
Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario cabinet minister responsible for immigration, with the latest salvo in an intergovernmental war of words, this time chastizing PM Justin Trudeau for accusing a Quebec woman of intolerance when she heckled him at a rally.
“Ford could be forgiven for pausing for a rest after this tsunami of activity, but I doubt that he will. The guy is like a Harley – he doesn’t idle well.”
Former PC cabinet minister John Snobelen, in his Sun Media column, approving of the breakneck pace of the new government.
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