Ontario’s economic recovery will be fuelled by growth and not “painful tax hikes or spending cuts,” the government said in a Throne Speech on Monday that also pledged the use of “localized and targeted” public-health restrictions to avoid lockdowns and contain COVID-19.
A masked Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell read out the Speech from the Throne, which is meant to lay out the government’s agenda, in an Ontario Legislature left half-empty for pandemic safety. All MPPs, staff and journalists had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result to enter.
Premier Doug Ford had prorogued the Legislature to extend its summer break until after the Sept. 20 federal election, making necessary a new Throne Speech, his Progressive Conservative government’s second since its 2018 election.
The six-page speech was almost entirely devoted to the pandemic, largely outlining actions the government has already taken or pledged to take. Opposition leaders criticized the government for failing to detail any new initiatives to fight COVID-19 or to help Ontario’s economy recover.
The government did use the speech to warn of “significant fiscal challenges” ahead, caused by its “unprecedented levels of spending.” (The province’s deficit, largely driven by pandemic spending, came in at $16.4-billion last year – less than half the record $38.5-billion originally forecast.)
But the Throne Speech says the government would not resort to “painful tax hikes or spending cuts” and would instead rely on boosting economic growth. It also pledged to build new roads and highways, and expand public transit to “communities across the province.”
More details on the government’s plans were expected to be revealed in a fall economic statement due within weeks.
The speech acknowledged that COVID-19 cases may rise as the fall weather drives more people to spend time indoors. But it said health officials are monitoring the burdens on hospitals and their intensive care units and any future public-health restrictions would be “localized and targeted.”
“The ultimate goal, shared by all, is avoiding future lockdowns,” the Lieutenant-Governor told the Legislature.
The speech reiterated the government’s previous pledges to expand capacity and improve care in the province’s long-term care homes, where more than 3,800 residents and staff died with COVID-19 despite Mr. Ford’s promise of an “iron ring” of protection. The speech also said the government’s new long-term care legislation, coming this fall, would improve “accountability, enforcement and transparency” in the sector.
“The days when bad actors could get away with anything less than quality care for our most vulnerable will be over,” the Lieutenant-Governor said in the speech.
These promises did not satisfy the Ontario Health Coalition, which staged protests across the province, including one in front of Queen’s Park on Monday. Natalie Mehra, the advocacy group’s executive director, said a pledge to hold operators accountable rings hollow from a government that has chosen not to enact powers already on the books to fine long-term care homes up to $100,000 for repeatedly violating existing rules and passed a bill during the pandemic to protect them from negligence lawsuits.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the Throne Speech “thin gruel” that contained nothing new to help patients, students, workers or businesses. She said she would have pushed to hire thousands of nurses and to decrease class sizes in schools. Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Mr. Ford of being “in hiding for months,” and said he was disappointed to see no movement on talks between Ontario and the federal government on a deal to bring in $10-a-day child care.
The Throne Speech marked the first day Ontario MPPs had to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test to sit in the Legislature. Mr. Ford had already expelled one MPP from caucus, Rick Nicholls, for refusing to get vaccinated, in August. On Friday, his government demoted another MPP, Lindsey Park, from her role as parliamentary assistant to the Attorney-General for having “misrepresented” her vaccination status. She remains a member of caucus.
PC House Leader Paul Calandra told reporters Ms. Park has since received a medical exemption but did so without “properly communicating” this to him or the House leadership. Ms. Park’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The government said Monday it will be moving a motion on Tuesday to replace Mr. Nicholls as the Legislature’s deputy speaker with PC MPP Bill Walker. Another PC member, Christina Mitas, also received a medical exemption and remains in caucus.
Mr. Ford, who attended the speech but did not appear before reporters on Monday, flew to Timmins, Ont., later that day to meet with front-line workers and business owners, his office said. He is to return to Toronto on Tuesday but is expected to miss the first Question Period of the legislature’s new session.
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