Ontario’s incoming premier, Kathleen Wynne, signalled her intent to overhaul the province’s social assistance programs by including the co-author of a report calling for more generous welfare rates on her 16-member transition team.
Frances Lankin, a former head of United Way Toronto and co-chair of the Social Assistance Review Commission, is among a who’s who of public- and private-sector officials appointed to the team, unveiled Tuesday evening.
Ms. Wynne announced on Tuesday, before heading into her first caucus meeting since winning the leadership of the Liberal Party over the weekend, that reforming the province’s social assistance programs was one of her first concrete pieces of policy. It highlighted both her desire to tackle the social issues on which she built her political brand, as well as find common ground with the New Democrats in the minority legislature.
“It is something that is a priority for us,” Ms. Wynne told reporters.
But in a nod to the fiscal challenges confronting the province, including its $11.9-billion deficit, Ms. Wynne also appointed former Toronto-Dominion Bank economist Don Drummond to the team. Mr. Drummond wrote a landmark report last year on the need to dramatically cut spending on health care and other social programs to help balance the province’s books.
Other members of the transition team indicate that Ms. Wynne, who has vowed to govern in a collaborative fashion, is reaching out in every direction, from native leaders to the corporate sector and former municipal and provincial politicians. The list includes: former Toronto mayor David Crombie, Regional Chief of Ontario Angus Toulouse, plus several people who backed her leadership campaign, including former MPP and finance minister Greg Sorbara.
In a report last year, Ms. Lankin and the federal government’s former chief statistician Munir Sheikh advocated increasing welfare rates and allowing recipients to keep more of their benefits when they find work. They also recommended several structural changes to the program, including merging the province’s disability benefit into the regular social assistance system and simplifying the rules to make it easier for welfare-recipients to navigate.
Ms. Wynne said she had tasked Peter Wallace, secretary of the cabinet and the head of the civil service, with drawing up a plan to implement the report.
Ms. Wynne, who has not yet met with Lieutenant-Governor David Onley to begin the official handover of power from outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty, also said battling gridlock in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is at the top of her to-do list.
“Transit is a huge priority… for the GTHA and beyond, I think it is the number one condition that we need to get right in terms of economic growth,” she said.
Provincial transit agency Metrolinx is set to deliver a report in June on new revenue tools – such as taxes, road tolls or congestion charges – to pay for projects including a new subway line in Toronto and light rail in Mississauga and Hamilton.
“It’s not whether we’re going to create a revenue stream, I’ve said that it’s which of those tools we’re going to use,” Ms. Wynne said.
She spoke with Mayor Rob Ford at a board of trade function Monday evening and said they planned to sit down in the next couple of days. Mr. Ford dismissed putting in place “any new taxes” to pay for transit Monday, but city council has been more amenable to such plans. The city is launching public consultations on transport revenue.
Departing Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said Mr. Ford and his allies are dreaming if they think it will be possible to build new subways without new ways of raising the funds.
“The cost associated with this would swallow up every nickel of capital the government has and then there wouldn’t be enough,” he said. “They’re advocating the most expensive solutions and pretending, again, the transit fairy’s going to come and give them all the money they need to do it.”