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Long before they know what will be in the first budget introduced since Kathleen Wynne became Premier, Ontario's Progressive Conservatives said they plan to vote against it. As has consistently been the case since the 2011 election, the Official Opposition will avoid anything that could be seen as propping up the minority government it spends most of its time criticizing – leaving that to the third-party New Democrats, if anyone.
But on one legislative matter, the Tories and the governing Liberals might soon find themselves having to work together, if only to avoid the wrath of influential municipal politicians whenever the next provincial election rolls around.
Last month, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario renewed its call for changes to the interest arbitration system, in hopes that new rules might limit the cost pressures for cash-strapped cities. Their complaint is that while most of the province's public employees are currently seeing their salaries flatlined, those deemed to provide "essential services" – predominantly municipal employees such as police and firefighters – keep being handed generous raises by arbitrators.
The Liberals are acutely aware that they need to respond to that concern. The catch is that putting arbitration changes into the budget could make it more difficult to get support from the union-friendly NDP. So their best bet may be to address the issue through separate legislation rather than the budget bill and seek PC support, a possibility that both Liberals and Tories seem open to.
The Liberals are unlikely to go as far as the Tories (and many mayors) want, in terms of changing the way arbitrators are chosen and forcing them to take more strongly into account employers' ability to pay. But a sequence of events last year proved there's some potential for common ground.
At that time, the Tories appeared prepared to support government proposals to compel arbitrators to provide more explanation for their decisions, and require those decisions to be made within 12 months. If that second one sounds exceedingly modest, it bears noting that under the present system some decisions take an astonishing three or four years. That contributes to the wage increases, because arbitrators are influenced by other raises handed down in the meanwhile.
Liberals sources now concede that they subsequently made a mistake, presumably under union pressure, by softening their proposal so the window would be 16 months instead. The effect was that the Tories withdrew their support, killing the changes.
Could the 12-month deadline be revived this spring, perhaps alongside a few other employer-friendly arbitration changes? Liberals are hinting as much. And a senior PC official recently said that might be enough to qualify as "half a loaf" – the turn of phrase used by Mr. Hudak to describe the Liberals' legislation to impose contracts on teachers, the one government bill the Tories have voted for.
Both parties have strong incentive to make it work, one way or another. One of the most prominent agitators for arbitration reform is iconic Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, whom Ms. Wynne owes big for her support during the Liberal leadership convention. Meanwhile, some of the most urgent calls have come from smaller cities in rural Ontario, heavily represented by PC MPPs who could hear about if if they're seen to block helpful changes.
Nobody will mistake it for the sexiest issue. But at a time when municipalities are struggling to pay the bills, and the province doesn't have any extra cash to help bail them out, it would make a difference. And at this point, the ability of the two biggest parties to work together on anything whatsoever would qualify as a landmark moment for minority government in Ontario.
Adam Radwanski is a columnist in The Globe and Mail's Queen's Park bureau in Toronto.