Doug Ford is pulling at loose ends the Liberals left behind

ANALYSIS: The Tories are poised to make big program and policy changes — partly because the previous government gave them an opening to do so, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 6, 2018
Ontario premier Doug Ford
The rules of Ontario politics concentrate a lot of power in the hands of the premier’s office and cabinet. (Chris Young/CP)

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The new Progressive Conservative government has, in the course of one week, announced that the province is pulling out of an immigration settlement agreement with Ottawa and Toronto; fired the province’s first chief scientist and its first chief investment officer; put more nails in the coffin of the previous government’s cap-and-trade program, aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; paused changes to police oversight and regulations for vaping; and more narrowly limited payments for prescription drugs under OHIP+.

That’s one week. There are 201 more between now and the next election — and there’s a lot more of this to come.

The easiest stuff to explain is the firings: people like Alan O’Dette (the provincial CIO) and Molly Shoichet (the chief scientist) were appointed relatively late in the Liberals’ tenure — Shoichet had been announced in the fall of 2017. They weren’t, strictly speaking, partisan appointments, but it’s not even a bit unusual for a new government to make changes in personnel. Ed Clark, who advised the government on privatizing Hydro One, was obviously going to be looking for new work after last month’s election.

Others in the public service and those with cushier patronage appointments may end up facing a similar fate. The premier’s office confirmed to TVO.org on Thursday that David Collenette, appointed earlier this year to chair the planning advisory board for the proposed high-speed rail line from Toronto to Windsor, had also been removed from his post.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to say that these changes mean relatively little. No offence to Shoichet, but it was never clear what value the chief scientist role would actually add to the public service: the Ontario government already employs scientists in large numbers for ministries such as environment and natural resources and forestry. They offer advice to the government, and the government can follow it — or not. Voters can weigh Ford’s choices however they like, but the Liberals had their own imperfect relationship with science when it suited them.

The new government has made other choices, though, that could have a more direct impact. The decision to trim spending on OHIP+ by having the government pay for prescription drugs only after people have claimed what they can from their private insurers is intended to save money, but its implementation could cause headaches for parents looking to fill their children’s prescriptions. And, notably, the government has so far announced only its intentions: it hasn’t filed new regulations or changed any laws yet — it announced its plan as part of a request that private insurers give it time to work out the details. It’s entirely within any government’s power to issue a press release.

Other Tory changes hinge on more arcane details. Police oversight is one example: the Liberal government passed the Safer Ontario Act to, among other things, empower the Special Investigations Unit to compel police officers to testify in investigations and to penalize them if they refuse. The legislation passed third reading at Queen’s Park and was signed into law by Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell — so it’s law, right? Not quite. It’s normal for there to be a transition period between the passage of a law and its coming into force to give everyone time to plan.

The new law was supposed to be “proclaimed” on July 1, but proclamations are made by the LG on the advice of cabinet. The new Tory cabinet met last week and stopped the proclamation before it could come into effect.

Contrast this with the changes the Liberals made to the Ontario Municipal Board (since renamed the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal), which were proclaimed in the spring and so would be more difficult to reverse. Any legislation that’s been fully proclaimed and is in force will need to be repealed before the Tories make major changes. Laws like the Safer Ontario Act will also need to be repealed (eventually) if the Tories want, but the government has the luxury of hitting the pause button because the law didn’t make it all the way to the finish line under the Liberals.

There are other repeals on the horizon. Ford made no secret of his intent to undo the Liberals’ plan for the minimum wage, which is currently supposed to increase to $15 an hour on January 1, 2019. The Liberals did put it into law, which will make it more time-consuming to reverse, but not terribly difficult. Other measures that the Liberals laid out in legislation in last few years — pay-transparency and changes to correctional centres, for example — were on time delays similar to the Liberal police oversight law, so the Tories still have time to pause them before they come into force.

Elections matter, and the rules of Ontario politics concentrate a lot of power in the hands of the premier’s office and cabinet. The Tories get to give it a whirl for now, and that will mean pulling at the loose ends the Liberals left behind.

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