Queen's Park Highlights

Queen's Park Highlights - April 17, 2015

1. PC Education Critic asks Education Minister to “get Serious about Negotiations” 

On April 16, PC Education Critic Garfield Dunlop pointed to the looming OSSTF strike in Durham, accused the government of being responsible through its “mismanagement”, and asked what the Liberals were doing to prevent a strike. In responding, Education Minister Liz Sandals stated that OSSTF had “suspended their participation,” not walked away from the talks. In answer to a supplementary question, the minister emphasized her commitment to a negotiated settlement:

“Well, the first thing I would say to the member opposite, and to everyone in the province, is that I continue to believe that what we need are negotiated settlements. We have nine central tables. Discussions are currently ongoing at eight of those central tables. I fully anticipate that we will have discussions ongoing at nine of those central tables when we get over this “suspension,” and that we will work very hard to negotiate collective agreements. And we will negotiate them at the table, because everything I’ve learned about collective bargaining over the years tells me that when you negotiate in the media, negotiations fail. 

“So our goal is to get to the table and to negotiate settlements, because negotiating is the way we deliver programs for students.”

2. NDP MPP says Provincial Government responsible for Teacher Layoffs 

On April 13, NDP MPP Jennifer French pointed to news that the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board had issued 118 layoff notices to contract teachers. She said the government had handed the teachers the pink slips. She asked: “…if the Premier isn’t making cuts to education, how does she explain taking 118 teachers out of the classroom?” Deputy Premier Deb Matthews responded by referring to the NDP MPPs who were former school trustees and pointing out the record of when they voted to close schools. 

Ms. French replied that as a former teacher, “I’m pleased to say that I know first-hand just how squeezed our schools already are. I also know that we should be giving our students a leg up and not trying to balance the budget on their backs.” She asked whether the Premier would stay true to her word and stop cutting and gutting our education system.” 

The Deputy Premier refuted the accusation of funding cuts:

“In fact, the funding in the last school year was $22.5 billion. The funding this year is $22.5 billion. It doesn’t sound like a cut to me. The funding is stable. 

“In fact, we’ve done some really interesting things this year. We’ve actually doubled the funding for school renewal projects. That’s for that major repair of the roof, fixing the leaky window, replacing the boiler. Last year, there was $250 million. This year, there’s $500 million so that boards can—boards have been telling me for ages that there’s a backlog. We’re going to fix that backlog.”

3. NDP MPPs raise School Closure Issue 

On April 14, NDP MPPs Taras Natyshak and Lisa Gretzy referred to recent community meetings on school closures in their region. Ms. Gretzy accused the government of failing to take a “proactive” approach to the creation of community hubs. In her response, Education Minister Liz Sandals returned to citing examples of whenMs. Gretzy had voted in favour of closing schools when she was a trustee. TheMinister concluded by stating: “What she’s failing to recognize is that, in fact, we have put in the budget a $750-million school consolidation fund to help local boards do exactly what she’s asking: create community hubs.” 

4. NDP attacks Government over Proposal to Privatize Hydro One 

On April 16, the government announced two new initiatives in one news release: the expansion of beer sales to grocery stores and the partial privatization of Hydro One. The policies are both part of a report prepared by the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets headed by Ed Clark, former chief executive officer of TD Bank Group.

Both Opposition parties made the Hydro One proposals a priority issue during Question Period this week. On April 16, just prior to the release of the Clark Report, PC Acting Premier Jim Wilson asked whether the proceeds from the partial sale of Hydro One would be used to pay off the utility’s $27 billion stranded debt. Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi replied that “it would not be wise to pre-empt what’s in the report.” 

The most vociferous opposition to the privatization plan has come from the NDP benches. On April 13, Ms. Horwath asked why the Liberals thought holding a “fire sale” of Hydro One was a good idea. Finance Minister Charles Sousa replied:

“The member opposite, in her own platform, during the election made reference to the very things that we’re talking about right now. She based her projections on the ability for us to maximize the value of our assets, to reinvest and repurpose those very issues so that we can afford the things that matter to Ontarians like transit and infrastructure, and ensure that we actually gain even greater value from those assets. That is what Mr. Clark and the advisory team are doing in looking at those opportunities…”

On April 14, Acting Premier Deb Matthews cast the NDP as becoming “the party of the status quo”:

“They don’t want to change; they don’t want to build for tomorrow’s economy. They are rooted in the past. I have to say that they have opposed changes to the LCBO, opposed changes to the Beer Store, opposed changes…When they oppose any ways to fund transit, they are opposing infrastructure investment. You cannot have it both ways; if you want to build it, you have to pay for it.”

On April 15, Premier Kathleen Wynne responded to Ms. Horwath’s accusation that the Liberals were making a “sharp right turn” through their hydro policy by pointing her finger at the NDP’s attempt to reposition itself on the political spectrum:

“I completely understand why the leader of the third party would want to get into an ideological debate right now, because it’s necessary for her to reposition herself as a progressive. She lost that brand completely when she decided not to support a budget that was going to invest in the people and the infrastructure of this province. 

“Having not governed ideologically, I have never suggested that ideology or polling is the way that I would govern. I made practical decisions, and we put those into our budget and we put those into our platform. At this point, what I will say to the leader of the third party is that we’re sticking to those decisions that we made. We’re sticking to those practical solutions to the problems that are confronting us as an economy and as a province right now.”

5. Official Opposition opposes Government’s Plan for Carbon Cap and Trade Plan 

On April 13, the government announced it was planning to move forward, in a partnership with the province of Quebec, to establish a cap and trade policy for carbon emissions. In its news release, the government stated: “The government will reinvest the money raised through cap and trade in a transparent way back into projects that reduce greenhouse gas pollution and help businesses remain competitive. 

In response, PC Acting Leader Jim stated the policy was in effect a carbon tax:

“This scheme isn’t about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; it’s about taking more money from the taxpayers to fund this government’s spending addiction. It’s pretty simple: When businesses pay more, consumers pay more. By imposing this tax on businesses, you will drive up the cost of everything in this province. It’s a tax on everything.”

Responding for the government, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews stated:

“Climate change is already happening, and we are already paying the price for climate change. The record rain in Toronto in 2013 cost almost $1 billion. The ice storm in 2013 cost $200 million in insurance costs. Experts are predicting that the cost of climate change will grow dramatically over the next number of years if we don’t take action.

In answer to a supplementary question, Minister Matthews said:

“We believe we have a responsibility to take action—to take action now. We’ve set our path. We will be going with a cap-and-trade approach, in concert with the province of Quebec, with the province of British Columbia. That’s 75% of Canadians who will be operating under a cap-and-trade approach to reduce carbon emissions.”

On April 14, in answer to a question on the same issue from PC MPP Lisa Thompson, Minister Matthews stated:

“It’s becoming clear that the pro-carbon party is the best friend carbon ever had.

“Speaker, what you must recognize and what we all must recognize is that we believe in the principle that the polluter should pay. We know that when we add a cost to carbon, businesses will reduce their emissions because it makes sense for them to do it. Why would we not reward businesses that take action to reduce emissions? That is at the heart of this.”

 

For more information, check the website of the Ontario Legislature.

Queen's Park Highlights - May 3, 2013

1. Gas Plant Issue continues to Blaze at Queen’s Park

Throughout the week, the Opposition parties continued their assault on the gas plants issue. They clearly view the issue as the key to preventing Premier Wynne from reinventing the Liberal government and refreshing the Liberal brand.

Premier Kathleen Wynne took the hot seat on April 30 when she appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice Policy, the committee reviewing the gas plant issue. In spite having acknowledged the political nature of the decisions and taking actions to provide full disclosure of the costs of the relocations, the premier wasn’t successful in her attempt to distance herself from the McGuinty government decisions or convincing the committee or the media that she wasn’t aware early on that the costs would be much higher than originally stated.

On May 1, PC Tim Hudak accused the premier of a cover-up in terms of information related to the gas plant issue and challenged her to submit her government to a vote of confidence over the issue:

“Premier, your answers today, and your answers at committee yesterday, were highly evasive. They strain the bounds of credibility. Quite frankly, you’ve lost the moral authority to govern.

“I will ask you respectfully to put before the Legislature a confidence vote when it comes to the Liberals continuing to put their interests ahead of taxpayers’. Will you call that confidence measure for a vote today?”

The theme of “losing the moral authority to govern” is likely to become an election mantra of the Tories.

The Tories were unable to proceed with the non-confidence vote on the issue because the procedure required government agreement.

2. Provincial Budget cast as committed to Prosperity and Fair Society

On May 2, the Liberals had the opportunity to briefly change the channel from the relentless focus on the gas plant issue. Finance Minister Charles Sousaintroduced his first budget, most of which had been announced, one policy at a time, by the government during the days leading up Budget Day.

The budget responds to most of the NDP demands – lower auto insurance rates, more investment in social assistance, home care, and youth unemployment -- and is clearly designed to limit the third party’s ability to vote the budget down.

Overall, the budget should be viewed as an austerity budget, but one that introduces some modest measures to address the needs of the most vulnerable Ontarians.  Unlike the Dwight Duncan’s 2012 budget, it doesn’t lay down the gauntlet to public sector unions in a provocative way.

The budget confirms that the 2012-13 deficit is estimated to be $9.8 billion, down $5 billion from last year’s estimate.  The government attributes the savings to “being disciplined” and from the majority of ministries spending less than their respective allocation.  The budget also confirms that the one-time savings from the changes imposed on teacher sick leave and retirement gratuity provisions contributed $1.1 billion to that $5 billion drop.

The budget also points out that Ontario public sector settlements are now below those in the private sector, the municipal sector, and the federal public sector.

The government states it is on track to balancing the budget in 2017-18 and boasts that Ontario has the lowest program spending per capita among Canadian provinces, a nod to the credit rating agencies and the business sector. Public sector salary restraint is also contributing to reduced pension costs.

The budget reports that the government has followed up on about 50 percent of the Drummond Commission’s 362 recommendations, a figure that will increase to 60 percent this year.

Collective Bargaining

The budget states that the government respects collective bargaining and the bargaining process and will not over-ride collective agreements.

The government will continue its public sector restraint program, not by imposing wage freezes but by limiting funding. The budget states:

“All public-sector partners will need to continue to work together to effectively manage future compensation costs within Ontario’s existing fiscal framework, which includes no funding for incremental compensation increases for new collective agreements.”

The implication of the above is that education sector unions will gain compensation increases only by identifying savings within the current funding structure.

The government will introduce “an efficiencies and modernization savings strategy” in the education sector and will engage education stakeholders in that process and work with school boards to implement the strategy that will begin with the 2014-2015 school year.

Social Investments

The government will adopt a few of the Social Assistance Review Commission report recommendations by increasing social assistance payments by one percent and allowing recipients to retain $200 in monthly earnings without being forced off of assistance.  It will also increase the limits of liquid assets people on social assistance are able to have.

The budget announced that the government will extend its additional funding to the child care sector for a fourth year by allocating an additional $39 million in 2015-2016 to assist the sector adjust to losing four- and five-year-olds to full-day kindergarten.

In response to demands from the NDP, the budget commits to increasing the additional funding for home care by one percent annually above the four percent announced in 2012.

The budget also increases funding to Ontario’s legal aid system to support low-income families, victims of domestic violence, and others.

The budget will be debated in the Legislature over the next two weeks. Once the debate is concluded, the budget will come forward for a vote. This is the first opportunity the Opposition will have to bring the government down in a non-confidence vote.  There is also the possibility that the budget will be referred to a legislative committee for review and that the Opposition will use that process to amend the budget.

3. People for Education Report raises Concerns over Academic Streaming

People for Education, the Toronto-based advocacy and research organization, is using its annual survey of schools to roll out a series of mini-reports on various issues.  This week, the organization released a report on the degree of academic streaming in high schools.

On April 29, NDP Education Critic Peter Tabuns referred to the report’s findings and asked:  

“Will the minister investigate why low-income children are overrepresented in applied courses and why applied students are less likely to succeed, so that all students have a fair chance for success?”

Education Minister Liz Sandals replied:

“I think we really need to look at what’s happening with the graduation rate in Ontario high schools. When we came in in 2003, the high school graduation rate was sitting at 68% of kids; we’re now at 83% of our students. We’re up 15 percentage points. Part of that is due to the fact that we are providing a range of options for Ontario students.

“I absolutely believe that students have the right to choose whether they want to focus on academic or focus on more practical skills.”

To read the report, click here.

For more information, check the website of the Ontario Legislature:  www.ontla.on.ca

Queen's Park Highlights - May 10, 2013

1. Gas Plant Issue continues to Dominate Queen’s Park The Opposition parties must believe their incessant attacks on the government’s handling of the gas plant closures are eroding public confidence in the “new” Liberal government; the issue continued to dominate the daily Question Period this week. In addition, the Standing Committee on Justice Policy continued with its public hearings on the matter, the highlight of which was the appearance on Tuesday of Dalton McGuinty who claimed that the decisions were costly but necessary to correct bad decisions regarding the placement of the plants. 2. PC Leader says Budget Fiscally Irresponsible On May 6, PC Leader Tim Hudak asserted that the provincial budget would put “$20,000 on the back of every newborn child in the province” in terms of the cost of servicing the debt. He asked Premier Wynne if she didn’t “think it’s time to take a very different approach in our province: to focus on jobs and make government spend within its means?” The premier responded: “I really believe that it’s not an either/or proposition. For the fourth year in a row, we’ve beaten our fiscal targets. We’re the only government in Canada to have done so. We are on track to do that again for a fifth year and we’re on track to eliminate the deficit by 2017-18. “…But if the Leader of the Opposition had his way, he would park all of the service enhancement, he would park the investments in the future for that young child, the baby who’s either born today or the young child who is starting school today—and I don’t believe we can do that. I believe that simultaneously we have to continue to be fiscally responsible, we have to stay on track to eliminate the deficit and we have to make sure that we continue our services, our education, our health care, our investments in infrastructure, because those are what guarantee that the future will be bright for that baby who’s born today.” 3. Post-budget Poll shows Liberals and PCs tied On May 6, Forum Research released a poll indicating that 48 per cent of voters want the NDP to back the Liberals and avoid an election compared to 36 per cent who take an opposing view and 16 per cent who had no opinion. The poll also shows that the Liberals and PCs remain tied with 35 per cent of voter support each followed by the NDP with 25 per cent and the Greens at 4 per cent. 4. Premier responds to NDP Tax “Loop-hole” Issue On May 6, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath asked whether the government had been successful in its attempt to have the federal government postpone a corporate tax credit scheduled for 2015. Premier Kathleen Wynne replied “As the leader of the third party said, the Minister of Finance has written to his federal counterpart, and we will continue to work with the federal government. The reality is that they collect 75% of Ontario taxes, and so we have to work with them. “But I think it’s very important to reiterate what the Minister of Finance has said many times: This is not a loophole. It’s not a tax break, it’s not a tax giveaway and it’s not new. This is something that has been on the books and has been known about. It wouldn’t save $1.3 billion, as the leader of the third party suggests.” 5. NDP proposes Financial Accountability Office On May 9, NDP MPP Michael Prue asked Premier Wynne whether she supported the party’s call for a provincial financial accountability office to serve as a watchdog over government revenue and expenditure. It’s a concept modeled after the federal budget officer, a position the Harper government has recently decided to discontinue. Kevin Page, the federal budget officer, lent support to the Ontario NDP proposal. Premier Wynne hasn’t dismissed the idea, but indicated she would like to meet with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath to discuss the issue as well as the other demands the NDP leader has brought forward. In response to Mr. Prue’s question, the premier conveyed her frustration with the NDP approach to the budget discussions. “I have said it’s an interesting idea. I had a number of conversations with the leader of the third party before we introduced the budget. “We talked with hundreds of thousands of people across the province in developing the budget. We went to great lengths to make sure that we wrote a budget that reflected the concerns that we had heard and reflected issues that are of common interest to us all. That’s what the budget document is. “Mr. Speaker, I’m happy to have another conversation with the leader of the third party about another idea. The question is, will there be another idea and another idea and another idea? We’ve gone through a long process, and you know that I am not averse to conversation, but there is a time for decisions. The time is now to make a decision on getting the budget passed and doing the work of the people of Ontario. That’s what the timing is now.” 6. NDP consults with Voters re Liberal Budget The NDP has initiated an on-line survey for public feedback on the provincial budget and the NDP demands for changes. The survey buys the NDP some time in terms of announcing whether the party will support the Liberal budget. It also provides material for question period. To participate in the NDP on-line survey, click here. 7. MPPs pass Motion to Unite against Violence against Women On May 9, MPPs debated and passed the following motion introduced by Liberal MPP Amrit Mangat: “…that, in the opinion of this House, be it resolved that every member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario unite to end violence against women and girls in all forms, by building awareness, better law enforcement and by encouraging more emphasis on coordinated community response.” The motion doesn’t hold any legal obligation, but serves to raise awareness about the issue among Ontario legislators and Ontarians who follow the debate at Queen’s Park. For more information, check the Ontario Legislature website.

Queen's Park Highlights - April 25, 2013

Finance Minister Charles Sousa announced that he will be tabling his first budget on May 2. The PC party plans to introduce a general “non-confidence” vote prior to when the budget is presented.  The vote, however, would not precipitate an election. That opportunity will present itself when the Legislature deals with the actual budget vote.

The gas plant cancellation issue continued to be the main focus at Queen’s Park this week. Premier Kathleen Wynne is scheduled to appear as a witness before the Standing Committee on Justice Policy next week.

Since the Tories have declared they will vote against the budget regardless of its contents, the NDP is holding the balance of power in terms of whether the government falls on a budget vote. There is growing speculation the NDP may decide to precipitate an election.

1. Polls show Tories in the Lead

Pollster Eric Grénier reported on April 25 that the Ontario PC Party was in the lead among voters:

  • PC  -  35.4%
  • LIB -   29.6%
  • NDP -  27.9%
  • GR  -   5.9%

Grenier’s results are based on an aggregate of recent provincial polls.

To review the report, click here.

On the same day, polling firm Ipsos Reid released results showing a larger lead for the Tories and the Liberals in third place:

  • PC  -  37%
  • NDP -  29%
  • LIB  -  27%

There is a 3% margin of error associated with the polling sample size.

Historically, Ontario political parties have needed at least 38% of voter support to win a majority government. Therefore, based on the above results, if an election were held now, we would be facing another minority government, one likely led by the Tories.

2. People for Education Report shines Light on Decline in Music Education

On April 23, NDP Education Critic Peter Tabuns pointed to a new People for Education report that indicates that only 44% of elementary schools have either a full-time or part-time music specialist, a drop of 5% from 2005 based on the organization’s annual survey data.

In her response, Education Minister Liz Sandals stated that the Ontario curriculum ensures that all students have access to arts education.  She pointed out that recent increases to the education funding grants

“provided additional money for 4,900 elementary specialist teachers so that there is an opportunity for school boards to make a choice. Some have chosen to spend that money on music teachers, some on arts teachers, some on phys. ed. teachers and some on tech teachers.”

In response to a supplementary question, Minister Sandals stated that one outcome of declining enrolment is that school boards are relying more on itinerant music teachers:

“…we need to go back and look at the current People for Education report a little bit more closely, because if you look at their own report, they said that the number of schools with a music teacher exclusive to that school was 49%, plus 30% had itinerant music teachers in 2010-11, in other words, 79% of schools. If you look at the next year, yes, there was a trend to itinerant music teachers because declining enrolment was happening.”

The People for Education survey indicates that 32% of elementary students have access to neither a music specialist teacher nor an itinerant music teacher. To read the report, click here.

3. PC MPP challenges Ability of Liberals to balance Budget by 2017-18

On April 22, PC Finance Critic Peter Shurman asked the finance minister to explain how the government could meet its target for balancing the budget given the ballooning costs for moving the gas plants and for amending education sector contracts:

“You have no credible plan. You’re in the front benches of a government that has nothing in the cupboard because it tosses taxpayer money down the drain. Imagine how far the billion-plus power plant dollars burned by the McGuinty-Wynne election team would have gone if available now, or the $300-million-plus and counting that you’ve handed teachers to cover your missteps of last fall.

“Minister, tell us how you plan to balance the budget by 2017-18 as you have promised. What will we call them: new taxes, levies, fees, premiums? Here’s the thing, Minister: You cannot just come in here next week, read a speech and expect Ontarians to believe one single thing you say. The record for your non-mandated government speaks for itself. What is being cut? What is increasing?”

Finance Minister Charles Sousa replied:

“The member opposite just made up a bunch of numbers that are untrue. Unlike the opposition, when they were in power—in fact, they came out with a budget that was untrue: $5 billion in the hole—we have proven that we can exceed our targets. For four years in a row, we have been able to surpass everything that we said we would do because we’re working together with Ontarians. We have attracted more investment than any other place in Canada, and we’ll continue to work with them to ensure that businesses see Ontario as a good place to do business. We will continue to ensure that our public and our people are at their best and working. We have over 400,000 net new jobs since the recessionary lows.

“The entire world is having issues with their growth. We recognize that. That’s why we’re taking measured steps. That’s why we’re taking restraint measures to ensure that we balance our books by 2017-18. We’re moving towards that target. I look forward to having you read the budget--”

4. NDP Leader presses Government to commit to closing Corporate Tax “Loop-holes”

On April 22, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath returned to one of her party’s key themes: the need to increase revenue by closing corporate tax “loop-holes” that allegedly cost the provincial treasury “over a billion dollars”: Finance Minister Charles Sousa replied:

“There is no new corporate tax loophole that’s being opened up. These are, as you know, restricted input tax credits that are—and it’s not a billion dollars; I think the rough number is around $600 million. But, regardless, we are taking steps to close those loopholes. We are taking steps to ensure that we protect the interests of Ontario. That’s what we’ve been saying and that’s what we’re doing. We look forward to continuing to work together to try to find the best way forward to both support business and encourage investment while, at the same time, ensuring that Ontario has what it takes to balance its books by 2017-18.”

For more information, check the website of the Ontario Legislature:  www.ontla.on.ca