Hot off provincial politicians getting an earful at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario's annual conference this month, Progressive Conservative House Leader Jim Wilson sent a letter to his counterparts that seemed to hint at the rare prospect of co-operation between government and opposition.
Exceedingly generous contracts being handed out to emergency workers through arbitration system, Mr. Wilson contended, "are forcing municipal leaders to choose between raising taxes and taking fire trucks and police cruisers off the road." So the parties should work together, he said, on "comprehensive" legislation to reform the process.
This should not be an entirely outlandish suggestion, since there is obvious mutual interest among the parties in not having popular mayors furious over their inaction with a provincial election likely next spring. And yet to talk to the governing Liberals and the Tories since the letter was sent is to sense that they are once again about to demonstrate their complete inability to work together – overlooking past signs of common ground in the process.
In 2012, the PCs appeared prepared to support relatively modest reforms that would have forced arbitrators to explain their decisions better and imposed 12-month deadlines on them. That latter one was significant since decisions can take three or four years, leading to big retroactive raises because the bar for salaries went up in that period. But the Liberals increased the proposed deadline to 16 months after union pressure, and the Tories sided with the third-party NDP and gutted the measures from that year's budget.
Members of both sides have since expressed some degree of regret about how that played out. An obvious solution would be for the Liberals to introduce legislation this fall that would implement the arbitration changes from the 2012 budget, and for the Tories to support it.
In an interview, however, Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi sounded disinclined to do that. The government's focus, he said, is on bringing municipal leaders and emergency workers together to "develop consensus." Other Liberals have echoed that imminent legislation is unlikely.
Even if the Liberals did introduce such a bill, the Tories do not sound like they would support it. Only a few months ago, a senior official for that party said it might be willing to accept "half a loaf," a term PC Leader Tim Hudak had used to justify voting for contracts imposed on teachers. But Mr. Hudak's office is taking a harder line to the effect that the Tories would only support much tougher measures that, among other things, would change the way arbitrators are chosen and force them to take municipalities' ability to pay more into consideration – and which they know the Liberals want no part of.
That the two parties are further from consensus on this issue than they have been in years can likely be chalked up to strategic calculations.
Premier Kathleen Wynne is trying to rebuild a centre-left coalition after her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, alienated unions during his final year in office, and it bears noting that firefighters in particular were very helpful to the Liberals in past elections. The Tories, meanwhile, clearly decided long ago that, to make the case for a change in government, it is useful to make the current one as unproductive as possible.
Both sides are playing with fire. Ms. Wynne is at risk of alienating key allies, such as Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who has been among those leading the charge for arbitration reform. And if Mr. Hudak is seen as an obstacle to changes rather than an effective advocate for them, that could cause grief for his largely rural caucus among mayors whose small towns are being stretched especially thin.
If that is not enough to encourage co-operation, the simple matter of fairness should be. Even as the province had some recent success in freezing the wages of its employees, municipalities were getting stuck with double-digit salary increases in contracts awarded by arbitrators. As Mr. Wilson said in his letter, that is just not sustainable.
By at least returning to the common ground they seemed to find last year, the Liberals and Tories could restore a tiny bit of faith in the minority legislature's ability to address Ontarians' needs. Instead, they seem poised to provide another example of its inability to do so.