Toronto

Ontario politicians return to Queen's Park for budget debate, re-elect Ted Arnott as Speaker

Provincial politicians returned to Ontario's legislature Monday and re-elected Ted Arnott as Speaker, ahead of the government presenting a throne speech and reintroduced budget on Tuesday.

Opposition wants the health-care and affordability crises front and centre

Members of provincial parliament re-elected Ted Arnott, a Progressive Conservative who represents Wellington-Halton Hills, as Speaker. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

Members of provincial parliament are back in their seats at Queen's Park on Monday for the first time since the Ontario PCs landed themselves another majority government in the June election. 

The rare summer session gives Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government the chance to lay out its agenda, in a speech from the throne on Tuesday and presentation of a budget.

As their first order of business, MPPs re-elected Ted Arnott as Speaker. Arnott, a Progressive Conservative who represents Wellington-Halton Hills, served as Speaker for the previous four years.

Following the vote Arnott thanked members for electing him, and thanked the hundreds of staff at the legislature — from the cleaners to the clerks — and said the assembly couldn't function without them.

Arnott was up for the role against Nina Tangri, who served as associate minister of small business and red tape
reduction.

On Tuesday, there will be a throne speech, which will outline the re-elected Progressive Conservative government's agenda, followed by the budget, which is expected to be largely unchanged from when it was introduced but not passed in the spring before the election.

The only new item that Premier Doug Ford has signalled will be in the budget is a five per cent increase to Ontario Disability Support Program rates, which have been frozen since 2018 at up to $1,169 a month for a single person for basic needs and shelter.

Ontario NDP interim Leader Peter Tabuns says the time to act on the affordability and health-care crises is now. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

So far, Ford isn't showing signs of veering much from what he set out in the budget his government tabled in April — a budget, which did not have a chance to pass due to the timing of the election.

But his critics say staying the course ignores deteriorating situations the province is facing.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner says Ford needs to instead double rates, so people with disabilities don't have to live in "legislated poverty."

The Liberals and the Opposition NDP have also called on the government to increase those payments, and all three parties have also been calling for Ford to repeal wage restraint legislation as a way to ease a nursing staff shortage that has seen emergency rooms temporarily close across the province this summer.

"Now is the time for a new budget to deal with the new realities," interim opposition and Ontario NDP leader Peter Tabuns said at a press conference at the legislature Friday.

It is not yet clear how long the legislature will sit — for a short summer session or continue right through to the winter holiday break — but one piece of legislation that the government has indicated is coming is a so-called strong mayor bill.

Ford has said his government is aiming to have a system putting more power in the hands of the Toronto and Ottawa mayors before the municipal elections planned for October.

Burnout and workers leaving the profession has left hospitals strapped for staff and forced some units to temporarily close. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Affordability, health care and education are three issues expected to dominate debates. The Ontario NDP and various groups are already calling for immediate action as Ontarians struggle to put food on the table and hospital units are forced to temporarily close due to staffing shortages.

"Their honeymoon is over. Sixty per cent of the people in the province weren't thrilled with them on June 2," Tabuns said.

"And again, with the ER crisis, the cost of living crisis...the love is getting ever thinner"

Government officials were tight-lipped Friday about if any tweaks would be made to address increasing pressures in light of the health-care and affordability crisis, pointing instead to money the government has already committed to the health-care sector.

Health care

"I can't imagine how they can keep dodging the problems with the health-care system," said Henry Jacek, professor emeritus of political science at McMaster University.

"They have to show they're going to do something that's going to work," he said, but he doubts it will be something big enough to make a dent in the crisis, given little relief brought on my attempts thus far.

More than a dozen hospital units temporarily closed or reduced service ahead of the August long weekend due to a lack of hospital staff, many in critical or emergency care. 

Premier Doug Ford has not committed to repeal Bill 124, despite calls from health-care workers, the opposition and other groups. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

"There could come a point with the health-care system, that literally the number of people dying is something he can't ignore," says Laura Stephenson, a political scientist at Western University.

Unions representing health-care workers such as CUPE are calling for the repeal of Bill 124 that capped salaries for health-care workers, who are leaving the profession in droves with pay often blamed as a reason.

Pam Parks, a registered practical nurse and president of a CUPE local, says she's been telling the Premier and health minister about how dire the situation was for months, but feels like the government hasn't been listening.

"The workforce that they have here, they're excellent. And they're breaking down. They can't do it anymore…they need the government and the employer to realize that they are still here," she says.

Vice Principal Vanessa McFarquhar leads a tour of Blessed Sacrament Catholic School on Sept. 4, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ford has not hinted that he is considering repealing the bill, but last week said, "We're throwing everything we possibly can at the health system."

The spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance says the government is already giving nurses a retention bonus of up to $5000 per person over two years and is investing $230 million this year "to enhance existing programs so that hospitals and the health care system have the staff they need." The government is also investing an additional $3.3 billion into the system in this fiscal year to "be prepared to respond to any crisis."

Affordability

Stephenson says the rising cost of living is top of mind for many and Ford campaigned on his team being the one to improve the situation for Ontarians.

While gas and house prices are coming down, food prices are skyrocketing and more Ontarians are relying on food banks, she says.

"I think they'll try to make steps in that direction," she said.

Jacek isn't so sure. With the prices of some items decreasing, the government may see this is a shrinking problem, not a growing one to tackle now, he says.

Tabuns says Ontarians can't wait for things to cool off.

"Inflation is eating away at their paychecks, and corporations are using inflation as an excuse to make even bigger fortunes off us," he says.

Education

Public school education unions are back at the bargaining table with the government this summer.

Ford is likely hoping to avoid attracting a lot of additional criticism on this file as a smooth return to school is top of mind for parents during negotiations, says Jacek.

Jacek says if he was advising Ford about what to include in the throne speech, he would say, "You probably should say something positive about what you're going to do in terms of your relationship with the teachers.

Tone tough to predict: expert

Only time will tell what the tone of this session will be, but the throne speech Tuesday will likely offer some clues about the type of Ford government we are likely to see. 

Jacek says the varied approaches the Ford government has taken so far will make his tone tough to predict. "Which Doug Ford are we going to see? The hard-nosed one or Mr. Nice Guy?"

Stephenson says with an election now four years away, Ford may use the longer runway to do things a little outside his wheelhouse as crises demand.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.

With files from The Canadian Press

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now