Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is calling on Liberal Party members to be “fearless” in the face of mounting labour unrest over his government’s plans to freeze public-sector wages.
“This has got some people upset. I can understand that,” Mr. McGuinty told about 1,000 delegates at the Liberal Party’s annual meeting in Ottawa on Saturday. “I want to be clear on this point. This isn’t a political tactic. We’re doing this because we know it’s the right thing to do. It’s our job to do it.”
Mr. McGuinty’s keynote luncheon speech amounted to a pep talk for beleaguered caucus and party members, who have been besieged by angry teachers over legislation freezing their wages and the fallout over the government’s decision to pull the plug on two power plants west of Toronto.
Delegates arriving at the cavernous Ottawa Convention Centre on Friday evening were greeted by about 1,000 teachers and other public sector workers, waving placards. Police were forced to close Colonel By Drive to local traffic.
“We brought you into this office and we can take you out,” read one sign. “Stabbed in the back by McGuinty,” read another.
The protesters also handed out red T-shirts with a photo of Mr. McGuinty on the front and the slogan, “We respect the bargaining process.” This prompted a little black humour by one delegate, who said: “At least we know them all. They’re teachers.”
Mr. McGuinty said he is not discouraged by the anger from his onetime allies in the public sector. People are not exactly “bridling with enthusiasm” over his government’s restraint measures, he said, so it will take time to win back their support.
Mr. McGuinty's leadership was overwhelmingly endorsed by delegates, with just under 86 per cent supporting him.
He likened his government’s efforts to impose wage freezes on public-sector workers who bargain collectively to the controversy over the health premium introduced shortly after the Liberals came to power and the harmonized sales tax in 2010.
“We’ve been there for each other for the purposes of supporting better public services for nine years,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters. “We’re going to get that goodwill back.”
There are already many in the public sector who support the wage freezes aimed at helping the province erase a $14.8-billion deficit, he said. Some 55,000 Catholic elementary and secondary teachers, 12,000 college professors and 11,000 executives and managers in the civil service all voluntarily agreed to freeze their wages.
“They know that when times are good, when we could afford to, we gave them raises,” Mr. McGuinty told the delegates.
The annual meeting caps a particularly tough time for the governing Liberals. Regular business, including the daily Question Period, ground to a halt last week as opposition members debated whether to find Energy Minister Chris Bentley in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release documents on the power plants to a legislative committee last May. The debate continues on Monday.
The government released 36,000 pages of documents last week after the Speaker ruled there was evidence Mr. Bentley breached his privileges by not releasing the documents.
Mr. McGuinty accused opposition members of dishonouring Mr. Bentley and the entire legislature.
“While strong, partisan debate is part of a healthy democracy,” he said to loud applause, “ the mean-spirited, groundless accusations being made against Minister Bentley are not.”
Bob Rae, the interim federal Liberal leader who also steered the province through a difficult economy when he was premier in the early 1990s, said Mr. McGuinty has to make difficult decisions.
“This is no time for summer soldiers and sunshine patriots,” Mr. Rae told reporters at the Liberal annual meeting. “These are the times that try people’s souls.”
Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod said the Liberals have lost their coalition among unionized public sector workers.
“I think you’re going to find a very fractured labour movement,” Ms. MacLeod told reporters. “I don’t think it will speak for all workers in Ontario.”
New Democratic Party MPP Gilles Bisson said Mr. McGuinty has missed the point by trying to liken the uproar over wage restraints to the pushback on the HST.
“The public is infinitely more wise than he is giving them credit for,” said Bisson, pointing out that the Liberals were reduced to a minority government in the 2011 provincial election.