With Good Friday on the calendar, it was a short but busy week at Queen’s Park, with reaction to the federal budget, questions about new rules to prevent race-based policing and more debate on the government’s relationship with the province’s teachers.
New carding rules introduced
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi unveiled new provincial rules around the controversial practice known as street checks or carding, in which police arbitrarily stop and collect information from individuals. For years, community activists have decried carding, which has been found to disproportionally target racialized populations by a large margin.
The new regulations will come into effect on Jan.1, 2017. Police officers will face new requirements when stopping individuals on the street, including having to inform people of their right to not provide identifying information and offering a document that identifies the officer and how to contact the Independent Police Review Director if there are any concerns about the interaction. Police will also have to provide a reason for wanting to collect information that isn’t arbitrary, that isn’t based on race or solely because the individual is in a high-crime location, and isn’t because the person declined to cooperate. The ministry adds it is strengthening police accountability by requiring new forms of training, data management and reporting.
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While they welcomed an effort to establish a set of standards around carding, critics question why the regulations aren’t going into effect immediately and wonder whether they will be effective. Lawyer Howard Morton told the Toronto Star that under the ministry’s rules police will still be able to stop individuals at random as they do now, just so long as they don’t collect any personal information.
“The regulation thereby does nothing to prevent arbitrary and race-based approaches, stops and checks,” Morton wrote.
$300 million to set up benefit trusts for teachers questioned
The government has repeatedly said that drawn-out negotiations with the province’s powerful teachers’ unions resulted in agreements that were “net zero”: any salary and benefit increases were offset by cuts elsewhere in the education system.
So news that the Liberals had spent an additional $300 million to set up benefit trusts for teachers and school staff had the opposition accusing the government of flat-out dishonesty.
“This is at least $300 million taken out of the education budget. That is not a rounding error. I know the premier is not an accountant, but that’s $300 million more than she told this house,” PC MPP Lisa MacLeod said during question period on Wednesday.
The government says spending $300 million was necessary to significantly reduce the cost of administering benefits in the education system.
“There were a thousand different benefit plans. Some of those benefit plans might have had 15 or 20 people in them. They were extraordinarily expensive,” Education Minister Liz Sandals said in response to MacLeod. “For the first time in this round of bargaining, because we had the authority to negotiate centrally, we actually have the ability to bring 1,000 inefficient benefit plans into five or six pools. But when you set things up like that, there’s an upfront investment.”
Prorogation in the air?
The lack of new government bills over the past few weeks led some reporters to ask Premier Kathleen Wynne on Thursday if she was planning to prorogue the legislature. “Stay tuned” was her response.
Prorogation has been used controversially by both former prime minister Stephen Harper and former premier Dalton McGuinty when in minority government to, critics contend, nakedly hold on to power. But prorogation is also used by majority governments that aren’t threatened by a non-confidence vote. When a legislature is prorogued, all bills on the order paper that haven’t received royal assent cease to exist, and all committee work grinds to a halt. Prorogation is therefore a way for the government to re-set the legislative agenda and advertise its priorities in a new speech from the throne.
If prorogation is in the air, it’s not about to happen right away. Two signature government priorities – the budget bill and cap-and-trade legislation – have yet to be passed.
Provincial government reacts to federal budget
Shortly after federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau unveiled a budget that will go tens of billions of dollars into the red and promises to boost the Canadian economy and help the middle class, his provincial counterpart, Charles Sousa, gave the Ontario government’s official reaction.
Given that the new government in Ottawa is cut from roughly the same ideological cloth as the Wynne Liberals, Sousa was positive. “The budget makes the right investments for the future well-being of our federation by supporting the middle class, investing in critical public infrastructure, and investing in Canadians who need it the most,” he said in a statement to reporters.
Yet some argue Queen’s Park may be a little disappointed by what was offered up by Ottawa.
“The federal budget mentions that the government is committed to reaching a deal with the provinces on enhancement to the Canada Pension Plan – an issue that Premier Wynne has aggressively championed, even bringing in her own provincial plan – but some critics and officials had wanted to see more on the issue in the document. On infrastructure stimulus, another of Ontario’s signature projects, the money pledged by the federal government was not as significant as some expected,” Jane Taber wrote in the Globe and Mail.
Bye bye, Bas
Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon surprised many Queen’s Park observers when he resigned his seat, effective immediately, on Tuesday. Balkissoon had represented Scarborough-Rouge River since 2005.
Balkissoon hasn’t commented on the departure, and why he chose to leave is still unclear. Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office was also somewhat terse in announcing the retirement. After briefly listing the parliamentary roles Balkissoon played during his Queen’s Park career, the premier’s short statement ended with: “I thank Bas for his service and wish him luck in his future endeavours. A byelection will be called within the next six months."
As a Toronto city councillor, Balkissoon was credited with blowing the whistle on the MFP computer leasing scandal, in which a $40-million contract ballooned to $85 million. A subsequent inquiry criticized contract participants for greed, mismanagement and lying and led to changes in the way Toronto’s government does business.
Question period: Ornge and seniors’ drug benefits
Opposition Leader Patrick Brown spent his time in question period this week attacking the decision of air ambulance service Ornge to lease a helicopter from AugustaWestland, a company implicated in a number of highly questionable business practices that took place at Ornge under former CEO Chris Mazza. An OPP investigation into what happened at Ornge with Mazza at the helm is ongoing. “Why is the premier allowing Ornge Air to crawl back into bed with their partners in this scandal?” Brown asked on Monday. Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Eric Hoskins accused Brown of a “smear campaign,” saying that contract he is referring to is still open to other companies and no final decision has been made. He also stressed that Ornge is under completely new management.
As she did last week, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath focused her questions on the government’s decision to increase the threshold for the Ontario Drug Benefit Program, meaning many seniors will pay more for medication. “Will the premier listen to the nearly 60 organizations who have written to her and cancel her plan to increase the cost of prescription drugs for seniors?” she asked Wednesday. The government responded by saying that it is still holding consultations with the public on its decision and that the move to increase the threshold will result in 173,000 more seniors not having to pay any deductible for their drugs.
Up for debate: Bills and motions this week
The following government bills were debated this week:
Bill 100, Supporting Ontario’s Trails Act: The bill contains measures to simplify the promotion and expansion of trails across the province, including enabling the development of a classification system to help users find trails that match their interest and ability. It is at the second reading stage.
Bill 151, Waste-Free Ontario Act: This bill is an attempt to overhaul Ontario’s recycling regime, which has come under criticism for stalled recycling rates and unpopular “eco-fees.” A major aspect of the bill is to make manufacturers more accountable for their products and packaging. It is at the second reading stage.
Bill 166, Supply Act: Introduced by Treasury Board President Deb Matthews, the Supply Act allocates the level of funding for each ministry and various governmental offices for the next fiscal year. The act has received royal assent and is now law.
Bill 178, Smoke-Free Ontario Amendment Act: This bill would usher in the changes the government wants to make to Ontario’s tobacco laws. In addition to regulating tobacco products, the bill would also prohibit the use of e-cigarettes and the smoking or vaping of medical marijuana in all enclosed public spaces, workplaces and specified outdoor areas. There would also be new restrictions on e-cigarette advertising and where e-cigarettes can be sold. E-cigarette sellers are upset by many of the bill’s measures, especially the prohibition against the testing of e-cigarettes where they are sold. The bill is at second reading stage.
The house also debated the government’s budget motion, a formality that gives the legislature’s assent to budget policies laid out by Finance Minister Charles Sousa that aren’t spelled out in Bill 173, the budget measures bill. The motion passed 53 to 39.
The following private members bills were also debated this week:
Bill 145, Albanian Heritage Month Act: Ontario is home to 28,000 Albanian Canadians. Liberal MPP Laura Albanese’s bill would declare every November as Albanian Heritage Month. November is significant to people of Albanian origin because Albania became an independent nation on Nov. 28, 1912. The bill has been referred to the Standing Committee on Social Policy
Bill 162, Commission of Inquiry into Illegal Trade and Trafficking of People, Drugs, Money, Tobacco and Weapons Act: PC MPP Toby Barrett’s bill would create the commission mentioned in the bill’s title and instruct it to make recommendations to combat these illegal trades. It was defeated at second reading.
Bill 179, The Tomato Act: Liberal MPP Mike Colle wants the province to proclaim July 15 Tomato Day, and make tomatoes the official vegetable of Ontario. Colle argues the tomato deserves special recognition for its tremendous contribution to the economy of Ontario. When asked why he was campaigning to have the tomato recognized as a vegetable when it is technically a fruit, Colle told a reporter "Listen, I've never seen a tomato in a fruit salad." The bill passed first reading.
Bill 180, Workers Day of Mourning Act: This bill introduced by NDP MPP Percy Hatfield would proclaim every April 28 as Workers Day of Mourning. Hatfield says a day of mourning to remember people who have been killed or injured or become ill as the result of work-related incidents would not only honour their memories but raise awareness about workplace dangers. The bill passed first reading.
Liberal MPP Marie-France Lalonde also introduced a motion to recognize the contribution of women in Ontario’s history by erecting statues honouring Rae Luckock and Agnes Macphail, the first two women elected to the Ontario legislature, on the grounds of Queen’s Park.
Queen’s Park This Week is TVO.org’s regular roundup of key events at the Ontario legislature. For more coverage of provincial politics, watch TVO’s archive of the most recent question periods at Queen’s Park.
With files from John Michael McGrath.