Ontario legislature resuming with Bill 124 repeal, politically charged omnibus bill

Ontario legislature resuming with Bill 124 repeal, politically charged omnibus bill © Provided by The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Ontario’s legislature will resume sitting this week with a flurry of activity, from repealing an unconstitutional wage restraint law to enacting a reversal of a decision to dissolve Peel Region and introducing politically charged omnibus legislation.

The colleges and universities minister is also expected to announce the government’s plan to address the financial struggles of the province’s post-secondary institutions early in the session.

The institutions have been grappling with low and stagnant levels of operating funding for years and then a 10 per cent tuition cut and freeze announced by Premier Doug Ford’s government in 2019 exacerbated their challenges, a government-commissioned panel said.

That panel recommended last year that the province unfreeze tuition while raising student aid and increase operating grants to the schools, but so far neither Ford nor Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop have indicated what they plan to do to stabilize the sector, aside from ruling out a tuition increase and telling institutions to find efficiencies.

One of the first orders of business for the government upon returning from the legislature’s more than 10-week break will be to introduce omnibus legislation titled the Get It Done Act, styled after Ford’s 2022 election campaign slogan.

The signature piece announced last week would require any future government to put any new provincial carbon pricing system to a referendum and has been criticized by opposition politicians as “performative political games” and a “smokescreen.”

It would not affect the federal carbon tax and the legislation could be repealed by a future government. Ford spent time during the announcement in Mississauga, Ont., to attack the former mayor of that city, now Ontario Liberal leader, Bonnie Crombie.

Another already-announced piece of the Get It Done Act would ban new tolls on provincial highways. The Ford government has no intention of introducing new tolls, having removed tolls on highways 412 and 418, and a future government could undo the law.

The legislation will not remove the tolls on Highway 407 East, the provincially owned portion of that highway, which a Ministry of Transportation report in 2021 projected would be giving the province around $72 million in revenue in 2024-25.

The omnibus bill is also set to enable automatic licence plate renewals, extend a freeze on driver’s licence fees through legislation rather than regulation, and “streamline approvals for major infrastructure projects and housing.”

Ford’s government has also promised when the legislature resumes to repeal Bill 124, a law from 2019 that capped salary increases for broader public sector workers to one per cent a year for three years.

Opposition critics, labour advocates and health-care workers had urged the government for years to repeal the law, blaming it for exacerbating nursing shortages, but the repeal only comes after two levels of courts found the law unconstitutional.

The government is also undoing the dissolution of Peel Region, as announced in December, and is set to do so through a section of the Get It Done Act to amend the Peel dissolution law the legislature passed in June.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said her party’s priorities for the session include addressing staff shortages in hospitals and expediting housing.

“People are waiting for hours for basic health care, they are stuck with sky-rocketing costs of housing, and their bills are not getting any lower,” she wrote in a statement.

“We need real solutions, but this government is too wrapped up in its never-ending scandals to come up with real solutions that matter to Ontarians.”

An RCMP investigation continues into the Greenbelt land swap scandal, which saw the government take land out of the protected area for housing development and then return it following heavy criticism of the selection process. No charges have yet been laid, the RCMP said recently.

Crombie, who does not have a seat in the legislature, laid out similar priorities to the other opposition parties.

“While Desperate Doug spends all of his time distracting Ontario citizens from his failures, flip flops, scandals and insider deals, Ontario Liberals will remain squarely focused on fighting for better healthcare and education, more housing, and a growing economy that lifts up every family in Ontario,” she wrote in a statement.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he will focus on putting forward bold housing solutions, protecting public services and investments in renewable energy.

Energy Minister Todd Smith has said he will introduce legislation to overturn a decision by the Ontario Energy Board that he said would increase costs for new homes heated with natural gas. Environmental groups have said the OEB decision was a huge win, as it would have encouraged the uptake of greener home heating and cooling, such as heat pumps.

More housing-related legislation is expected to land at some point before the session rises in June as the province tries to figure out a way to get on track to achieve its goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031.

Ford also heads into the session down one cabinet minister, though he appears to be in no rush to name a replacement.

Parm Gill announced last month that he had resigned as red tape reduction minister and would also resign his Milton seat in order to run federally with Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives. Cabinet posts are generally filled in short order, but it has been more than three weeks since this one was vacated.

The resignation also means Ford will have to call a byelection for that riding, though he has six months to do so. Crombie has not ruled out seeking a seat in the legislature in that riding, which is next to Mississauga.

Ford has about one more month in which he has to call a byelection for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, a seat then-labour minister Monte McNaughton resigned to take a job at Woodbine Entertainment. The Tories, NDP and Liberals have all nominated candidates for that pending vote.

Source: Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press