ONTARIO LEGISLATIVE HIGHLIGHTS

July 13, 2018


WEEKLY ROUNDUP

SUMMER OF 42 – Ontario’s 42nd Parliament is now officially underway, following one of the shortest post-election transitions in the province’s history. That transition is still very much a work in progress, of course, but Premier Doug Ford felt compelled to convene the Legislature for an unusual summer sitting, barely a month after being elected and less than two weeks after the official swearing-in. Government House Leader Todd Smith suggested MPPs will meet for at least “a couple of weeks” before recessing.

SPEECH RECOGNITION – As always, the new session kicked off with a Speech from the Throne. And as always, it was mostly pretty vague. In recent decades Throne Speeches have tended to be more philosophical than practical, and given that Ford’s own election platform was short on policy details no-one thought this week’s speech would offer an elaborate blueprint. As read aloud by the Lieutenant-Governor,  the speech reiterated most of Ford’s election promises – without specifics on when or how – such as a Commission of Inquiry into the financial practices of government, a line-by-line audit of all government spending, balancing the budget on a “responsible, modest and pragmatic” timetable, implementing a back-to-basics math curriculum, and enabling beer and wine sales in corner scores – all underscored by the now ubiquitous “Government for the People” mantra.

PRIORITY POSTS – Ford could have waited to bring back the House, as most new administrations do, except for one pressing piece of business: the months-long strike by staff at York University. Back-to-work legislation requires legislators, hence the quick launch of the new parliament. While they’re there, Ford’s Tories opted to add two other matters requiring what Smith called “urgent legislation” to the top of the agenda. Not surprisingly, killing the previous government’s cap-and-trade carbon emission program was right up there; somewhat less expected as a top priority was the cancellation of the White Pines Wind Project – a controversial, almost-completed turbine farm in Prince Edward County (which happens to be in Smith’s Eastern Ontario riding) that received regulatory approval during the election campaign and can only be undone through legislation.

ZAPPED – Ford didn’t need the Legislature to check off two more election promises:

  • “I’m happy to say today the CEO and the board of Hydro One, they’re gone. They’re done. They’re done. We’re going to turn a new corner,” Ford beamed as he announced that Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt is “retiring” (the government news release didn’t put quotes around it, but everyone else did) and the giant utility’s board will be completely changed over by mid-August. Ford had dubbed Schmidt the “Six Million Dollar Man” throughout the election campaign, deriding Hydro One for exorbitant salaries amidst soaring electricity rates. The Premier didn’t hide his delight that Schmidt is voluntarily leaving with a $400,000 obligatory payout and the board is following him out the door. “The severance was zero … absolutely zero,” Ford gushed, although it later emerged that Schmidt will walk away with about $9 million in stock options.
  • Education Minister Lisa Thompson seemed less enthusiastic about announcing that sex education in the coming school year will be taught from a 20-year-old curriculum. But Ford’s vow to kibosh the Liberals’ updated sex-ed curriculum was one of his more high-profile election promises, so he could hardly abandon it now. Thompson insisted a review – including extensive consultation with parents – will be undertaken quickly, but in the meantime teachers will have to consult a 1998 guide for their lesson plans. Most educators don’t expect the consultations to produce a dramatically different curriculum, but Ford only promised to revisit it – not necessarily revamp it.

THE REF – Presiding over the legislative proceedings will be Ted Arnott, who was elected Speaker of the Legislature in a secret ballot. This is the only time MPPs can vote without their choices being publicly recorded, creating intense – and intensively private – behind-the-scenes campaigning. The four candidates, all PC MPPs, reportedly pitched along the same lines, pledging fairness and respect. Arnott won over the majority on the first ballot (that’s all we know the actual vote count is guarded with Da Vinci Code secrecy) by touting his experience having “seen it from all sides” as a government, Opposition and Third Party MPP. Word is that Ford’s advisers breathed a sigh of relief that Randy Hillier didn’t win. Insiders say that Hillier, known as a maverick prone to butting heads with party brass, promised his fellow MPPs that as Speaker he would push for staff raises – clearly a thorny issue for the cost-conscious Fordites. Many new MPPs have voiced concerns about the challenges of recruiting good staff when the pay, which has been frozen for years, is so low. But apparently championing that issue wasn’t enough to get Hillier the job. He reportedly finished a close second.

RUEBEN SANDWICH – Speaking of salaries, the $348,000 Dr. Rueben Devlin will be earning annually had the new government briefly on the defensive. In these early days, Ford’s Tories will naturally enjoy a grace period, largely given a free pass as voters, having made their choice, tune out of politics and wait to see how it all unfolds. But that won’t stop Ford’s opponents from trying to keep the honeymoon short, sowing the seeds of negative perceptions. Such were the dynamics around the appointment of Devlin to head up the Premier’s Council on Improving Healthcare and Ending Hallway Medicine. His bona fides in health care are indisputable, as an orthopedic surgeon and former hospital CEO. So too are his Conservative credentials, as a former party president and a senior member of Ford’s transition team. The Tories have high hopes Devlin can make headway in solving hospital overcrowding, which justifies, in their minds, the large stipend. “We were very clear on the campaign trail we wanted to draw from his expertise on the health-care field,” PC MPP Lisa MacLeod insisted. The Opposition NDP, however, jumped at the opportunity to treat the appointment as value signalling. “The theme of Ford’s early days in office has been backroom deals to benefit his wealthy friends, and nothing to actually fix health care,” chided NDP MPP France Gélinas.

NOBODY’S A CRITIC – While Ford’s team expedited its transition process to facilitate the July legislative session, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is taking a slower approach. She’s decided to forgo naming a shadow cabinet until the fall.  In the meantime, she’ll assign Question Period duties ad hoc – in the absence of specific critic portfolios – for as long as the summer sitting lasts.

BREAKING THE RULES – This week’s Throne Speech only mentioned it in passing, but cutting bureaucratic paperwork appears to be high on Ford’s to-do list. Largely missed in the noise around the naming of his cabinet was a mini shuffle of Deputy Ministers, which saw veteran civil servant Giles Gherson bumped up to a Cabinet Office post, specifically as Deputy Minister of Red Tape and Regulatory Burden Reduction. Previous governments have similarly aimed at easing rules impacting businesses – then-Premier Mike Harris made much ado about the Red Tape Commission headed by the late Frank Sheehan – but never before has it been given such lofty authority.

An updated Ontario Legislative Highlights chart listing ministry contacts is now available for download.  Click Government Contact Chart.

MUNICIPAL BONDS – Provincial elections often feature a spate of municipal politicians looking to level up, and that was certainly true of the 2018 version just past. Now, the flow is going the other way, as some former MPPs try to get elected municipally this fall. Topping the list is ex-PC Leader Patrick Brown, who is running for Chair of Peel Region. He may have some high-profile competition, as former Liberal Finance Minister Charles Sousa is reportedly eyeing the same post. (Adding another level of intrigue, insiders say Sousa would have avid support from some Queen’s Park Tories who harbour a lingering dislike of Brown from his stint at the party helm.) Sousa’s former cabinet colleagues Chris Ballard and Steven Del Duca will also be on municipal ballots, running for Mayor of Aurora and York Region Chair, respectively. One of Del Duca’s challengers is another former Liberal MPP, Mario Racco, who left Queen’s Park in 2007. Also looking to make a comeback to elected office after years away are former Liberal MPP and Speaker Steve Peters, a one-time St. Thomas Mayor who is running to return as a local councillor, and ex-Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman, who is running for Toronto City Council.

IN THE HOUSE

  • Following the Throne Speech, Premier Ford introduced the traditional Bill 1, purely symbolic legislation that will never be heard from again.
  • Real legislation will have to wait until next week, when the three government priority bills are expected to be introduced.  Monday will also see the first Question Period with Horwath as Opposition Leader.

FOR THE RECORD

“A new day has dawned in Ontario. A day of prosperity and opportunity. For everyone. And help is here.”

  • Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, concluding the Speech from the Throne.

“Ontarians don’t want to be greeted by a robot at the one privatized regional hospital left after all their local hospitals have been shut down.”

  • Ontario Health Coalition executive director Natalie Mehra, sounding an early alarm about hospital consolidation and/or privatization as the Ford government looks to rein in health-care costs.

“It struck me that I was sworn in on June 29 and it was June 30 last year that I had my accident. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this job and I really am very grateful to all the health-care professionals.”

  • Health Minister Christine Elliott, who spent more than a month in hospital after a fall that fractured her skull last year, marvelling that she is now in charge of the whole system.
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