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Politics Social-assistance reform ‘a priority’ for new Ontario government

The new Liberal leader and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne heads to the microphone to speak to the media before her first caucus meeting at Queen's Park on Jan. 29, 2013.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Incoming Premier Kathleen Wynne is pushing forward with a reform of the province's social assistance system, which could include a large structural change and a boost to welfare rates.

The plan was one of the first concrete pieces of policy Ms. Wynne announced Tuesday before heading into her first caucus meeting since winning the leadership of the Liberal Party over the weekend. It signaled both her desire to tackle the social issues on which she built her political brand as well and also represents a piece of common ground with the New Democrats, who hold the balance of power in the minority parliament.

"It is something that is a priority for us," she said.

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Ms. Wynne said she has tasked Peter Wallace, secretary of the cabinet and head of the civil service, with drawing up an implementation plan for a report tabled last year by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheik, who made recommendations on social assistance. The report called for higher social assistance rates, a simplification of the system's many rules to make it simpler for people to navigate and a rule change that would allow welfare recipients to keep more of their benefits when they find work. It also recommended merging the provincial disability program with the general social assistance system and having the whole thing provided by municipalities.

Ms. Wynne spoke with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath by telephone Tuesday afternoon and said she would meet with her in person over the coming days. She has already met Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

She also bumped into Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at a board of trade dinner Monday night. She said the pair had "a very nice exchange" and agreed to meet, either at Queen's Park or city hall, within the next couple of days.

Transit is certain to be the main topic of conversation. The province is in the early stages of building four light rail lines across Toronto and is awaiting a report that will recommend methods of funding – such as new taxes, tolls or congestion charges – to pay for more.

"It's not whether we are going to create a revenue stream, it's which of those tools we're going to use," Ms. Wynne said.

Ms. Wynne is also set to meet with leaders of the province's teachers' unions, who have been withdrawing extracurricular activities since the fall in protest of the government imposing contracts.

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