'No easy solutions' to health care, economic issues, Ford government says in throne speech
Throne speech urges Ontarians to prepare for economic slowdown
More can be done to ease health system pressures in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford's throne speech acknowledged Tuesday, but no new solutions were offered to the problem that's led to temporary emergency room closures across the province.
Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell delivered Ford's speech from the throne, which marks the start of a new legislative session. The speech said the Progressive Conservative government is working with health-system stakeholders to identify ideas to tackle the issue.
Ford has been premier since 2018, and the speech touted what he has already done in health, including adding thousands of hospital beds and nurses, investing in home and community care, introducing a grant to attract health professionals to rural and remote areas, and planning to build 30,000 new long-term care beds.
"While these historic investments have helped to support the province's health system through the most challenging period in modern history, there's no question it, like health systems across Canada, continues to experience significant pressures, including an exhausted workforce and increasingly stressed emergency departments," Dowdeswell said.
"More can still be done. Your government is actively engaging with health-system partners to identify urgent, actionable solutions and will implement whatever measures are needed to help ease immediate pressures, while also ensuring the province is ready to stay open during any winter surge."
Emergency departments across Ontario have closed for hours or days at a time this summer, which stakeholders and advocates say is due to a nurse staffing crisis.
Opposition parties and nursing groups have been urging Ford to repeal wage restraint legislation that they say is harming efforts to recruit and retain more nurses, who are leaving the sector in droves after more than two years on the front lines of fighting COVID-19.
'We need giant steps': RNAO
Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO), said she would like to see faster action taken.
"What has been done is baby steps and we need giant steps," she said after the throne speech.
"We need giant steps to bring us out of this massive shortfall of nurses."
Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, said Ford has been ignoring solutions that the organization is calling for, including scrapping the wage restraint legislation known as Bill 124 and improving nurses' working conditions.
"The throne speech and this government pretend the crisis is a short-term issue, and says that the actions needed to address the health-care crisis have not yet been determined," Hoy said in a statement.
"The crisis is anything but temporary, and the government must wake up to that fact and listen to the solutions we have been telling them exist."
WATCH | Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell addresses health care challenges in throne speech:
Ford indicated through the speech that his government will work to address "short-term stressors," in health, but also make long-term investments, such as how the government previously created Ontario Health Teams to integrate care and implementing a "Roadmap to Wellness" plan for mental health and addictions care.
The throne speech also noted that — as promised during the election — the government will boost disability support payments by five per cent and tie future increases to inflation, and offered a new pledge to give an additional $225 million in direct payments to parents "to help their kids catch up."
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy wouldn't say what amounts parents would get, if it would be directly tied to tutoring, or if it would be means tested. Details will come later, he said.
The money for both of those measures will be funded from contingencies in the budget, the government said.
Budget draws criticism from opposition
Bethlenfalvy reintroduced the budget immediately after the throne speech.
The actual legislation is mostly unchanged from when it was tabled but not passed before the spring election. But projections have changed since then, and the government is now forecasting a deficit of $18.8 billion this year, down from the $19.9 billion the Tories expected in the spring due to higher-than-projected taxation revenues.
Personal income tax revenue is projected to increase by $941 million, sales tax by $597 million, and corporations tax by $417 million. However, land transfer tax revenue is projected to decrease by $787 million due to a slowing housing market.
Bethlenfalvy said it's prudent to use $1.1 billion to cut the deficit instead of on program spending given global economic uncertainty.
The only change in the budget from when it was first introduced in April is a five per cent increase to disability support payment rates, which Ford promised during the election. However, advocates say that's still far too low and the payments need to be doubled.
Speaking to reporters, Bethlenfalvy deflected concerns over the disability support pay boost, instead outlining a series of tax credits for the province's vulnerable population.
Asked if he could live on $1,169 a month — the amount given to Ontarians living with disabilities — Bethlenfalvy said the disability support pay bump is just a "step in the right direction."
WATCH | Finance minister is asked if he could live on $1,169 monthly:
The budget drew criticism from opposition leaders, who say it should have been adjusted since it was first tabled in April to match current inflation rates.
"The government had a chance to table a new budget to deal with these crises and Doug Ford chose not to," said interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns.
"This budget did nothing to offer relief from the punishing cost of inflation or to rebuild and improve our health-care system."
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner agrees, calling the throne speech and budget a "tired mixture of band-aid fixes and grand schemes" that fail to tackle affordability and climate change.
Prepare for near-term slowdown: speech
The throne speech remarks opened by acknowledging a global "growing sense of uncertainty," amid COVID-19, high inflation, and the war in Ukraine, particularly its impacts on supply chains.
Ford pledged through the speech to chart a path forward based on economic growth, "not painful tax hikes or spending cuts."
The speech largely touted key parts of Ford's agenda, including building highways and other infrastructure, attracting electric vehicle manufacturing investment, and a skilled trades strategy that seeks to address a labour shortage.
The speech also noted rising interest rates in response to high inflation and warned that Ontario, like the rest of the country, must be prepared for the possibility of a near-term economic slowdown.
Ford has also indicated that a so-called "strong mayor" bill is coming to give the leaders of Toronto and Ottawa more power. The speech suggested that those powers will help get housing built more quickly.
With files from CBC News