Ontario Legislative Session Begins as Ford Government Pursues New Term

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Opposition parties and critics are calling on the Ontario government to provide more relief to tackle rising inflation while accelerating solutions to hospital staffing issues when the legislature returns and the provincial budget is filed this week.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government will re-table its 2022-23 budget on Tuesday, originally presented in April and tested as a mainstay of the PC platform during the June elections.

After being re-elected, Mr Ford said the budget would remain largely intact with the addition of a 5 per cent rate increase for the Ontario Disability Support Program which the party campaigned on, as well as a commitment to link future annual increases to inflation. The budget promises $4 billion in additional spending for highways and roads and $10 billion for hospital infrastructure over 10 years.

But with the cost of living rising, inflation soaring over 8% and hospitals facing major staffing shortages, critics say more measures need to be introduced to support Ontarians.

The NDP’s acting leader of the official opposition, Peter Tabuns, said on Friday his party was asking for a new budget that would increase spending on health and education, as well as wages for public sector workers. Mr Tabuns said this would mean the repeal of Bill 124, introduced by the government in 2019, capping public sector wage increases at 1% for a contract period of three years.

Asked last Wednesday about the end of Bill 124, Mr Ford touted a $5,000 “retention bonus” given to nurses this year.

Unions and healthcare advocates say repealing the legislation should be a priority to retain overworked nurses. Staffing shortages have led to the closure of emergency rooms in hospitals across the province in recent weeks.

“The Speech from the Throne and the budget are opportunities to give people the hope and relief they deserve,” said Mr. Tabuns. “We are running out of time to tackle this problem. People are simply paying too high a price right now.

The legislature’s first task will be to select a speaker at the start of the summer session on Monday. The budget will be retabled Tuesday afternoon after a Speech from the Throne outlining priorities for the term, to be delivered by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

Opposition parties have said the government’s plan to raise ODSP rates does not go far enough to support those unable to work. The NDP and Green parties are calling for a doubling of rates, which they both said they would do during the election campaign.

ODSP Action Coalition co-chair Trevor Manson said a 5% increase is “a drop in the ocean” and would result in a monthly increase of $58 per beneficiary. With up to 70% of monthly income already spent on rent and rising grocery costs, Mr. Manson said, that’s not enough to live on.

“People can only afford to eat one meal a day and every day is a struggle,” he said in an interview. “When you’re so far below the poverty line, you kind of adopt a hunter-gatherer mentality. All you can think about is, okay, how am I going to get out of this?”

Government legislation on ‘strong mayor’ powers is also set to be introduced after Mr Ford confirmed plans to pilot the idea in Toronto and Ottawa. Full details of the powers have not been released, but Mr Ford said it would include a veto for mayors, which in turn could be overridden by two-thirds of the council.

The NDP and opposition Liberals will start the session with interim leaders after the two former leaders resigned from their posts on election night.

Both parties are in the process of electing a new permanent leader. The NDP has registered its March 2, 2023 leadership convention with Elections Ontario, but does not yet have confirmed candidates to replace longtime leader Andrea Horwath. Leadership candidates have until early December to enter the race for a $55,000 entry fee.

The Liberals are not moving as quickly to select a new leader to replace Steven Del Duca, instead holding an election campaign debrief throughout the fall to gather feedback from party members on challenges and next steps . The party increased its share of the popular vote by 4% compared to 2018, but won only one additional seat.

In a statement, spokesperson Carter Brownlee said further details on the leadership contest will be determined at a later date. The party will hold an annual general meeting next March.

The eight-member Liberal caucus has endorsed MPP John Fraser as interim leader for a second time. Mr Fraser has said he will not run for the permanent position, as has MPP Lucille Collard. Mitzie Hunter, currently the party’s longest-serving member, hasn’t ruled out a second leadership contest after losing in the 2020 race.

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