As Ontario MPPs return to the legislature on Tuesday after an eight-week break, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford faces a growing list of potential headaches.
Tensions are rising amid an impasse with striking teachers’ unions, with a provincewide one-day strike scheduled for Friday. Ontario’s Liberal Party, reduced to a rump in the last election, is now poised to select a new leader, former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca, who will set his sights on Mr. Ford.
And before the end of March, the government will unveil its second budget, potentially reigniting the battles over spending cuts that have dogged it since last year’s budget.
The government says its budget will take an even-handed approach. It also insists a deal can be reached with teachers unions – angered over plans to increase class sizes and mandate online courses – at the bargaining table.
But Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says the government must back off its education cuts if it wants a deal with teachers. And she is wary of a potential rerun of last year’s budget, which the government presented as protecting public services but included cuts to public health, legal aid and other programs.
“I know that last year, they tried to sell their budget as something that it wasn’t,” Ms. Horwath said. “And it took a lot of people a couple of days and, in some cases, weeks to weed out all of the cuts that were hidden in that budget.”
Finance Minister Rod Phillips told reporters this week that the budget would balance concerns over the cost of living with the need to spend more in key areas such health and education and the government’s plan to gradually balance the books over the next three years.
“I think it is all about a balanced approach. … People are worried about affordability for themselves. They are worried about investments in the key services,” Mr. Phillips said. “But they also understand that with the largest subsovereign debt in the world left by the last government … that we are going to have to be careful.”
PC House Leader Paul Calandra played down talk of back-to-work legislation to end the series of one-day teachers’ strikes that have left parents scrambling for child care. He said he felt both sides were close enough that a deal could be made at the table. But he would not rule out legislating teachers back.
“There’s no denying that obviously the government has massive legislative tools at its disposal,” Mr. Calandra said, adding that he has children in school and feels the same frustrations as other parents.
“I don’t think we’re there yet. I think most people will still say, get into the room and figure it out,” he said. “ … I know despite all the rhetoric on our side and on their side, there is still a deal to be done.”
He said he has been critical his own government’s approach to the budget, and that he preferred a quicker attack on the province’s $9-billion deficit. At the government’s current pace, the books will not balance until 2023 – a year after the next election.
“I am more of a fiscal hawk in the party than perhaps others are,” he said in an interview. “ … The Premier has chosen to do it over a longer period of time, so that we can work together to get there.”
He also dismissed concerns that a revitalized Liberal Party, with renewed fundraising and a louder voice under Mr. Del Duca, posed a threat.
“This is the guy who was at the table, for many, many years of McGuinty and Wynne government, which has put us in the place where we are right now with massive deficits, large debt, economic disparity between urban and rural parts of this province,” Mr. Calandra said, adding that Mr. Del Duca was “part of the reason which got me to run provincially.”
The legislature’s return will also mark the first Question Periods at Queen’s Park operating under new rules that allow Mr. Ford to refer questions directed to him to his cabinet without having to announce it in the legislature. The NDP, which notes that Mr. Ford often deflects questions unless they are friendly queries from his own government’s MPPs, has said the change will let the Premier off the hook.
But Mr. Calandra says the rule change – already standard procedure in every other legislature in Canada – actually favours the Opposition. Now, premiers won’t be able to run out the Question Period clock with what Mr. Calandra called the “slow rise,” taking several seconds to get up only to refer a question to another front-bencher.
“He can still be asked a question, and will answer those questions that he wants to answer,” Mr. Calandra said.
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