The Greenbelt is safe for now — but how much of Bill 66 is still up for debate?

ANALYSIS: The Tories have scrapped controversial changes to the Planning Act. But Bill 66 goes far beyond the Greenbelt, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on January 25, 2019
MPP Steve Clark in the Ontario legislature
Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark announced on Wednesday that the Progressive Conservatives would be scrapping some sections of Bill 66. (Chris Young/CP)

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On Wednesday, Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark announced (via Twitter) that the Progressive Conservative government would be scrapping some sections of Bill 66, which was introduced in December and involved controversial changes to the Planning Act. Schedule 10, now a dead letter, would have allowed municipalities to pass “open for business” bylaws that would have been exempt from certain provincial laws, including the Greenbelt Act and the Clean Water Act. In the face of much criticism — and of several municipal councils announcing that they wouldn’t use the expanded powers anyway — the government has backed away from that idea.

But Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, scheduled for debate in February, remains a big bill packed with lots of other changes to provincial law. Here are some that could have an impact on businesses and households around the province.

Changes to labour law

The Tories are proposing numerous changes — big and small — to Ontario’s labour laws. Bill 66 would allow employers to average a worker’s paid hours over four weeks for the purpose of calculating overtime pay. Hypothetically, this means that someone could work zero hours the first week and 50 hours for three weeks in a row and not be paid overtime. This is similar to the threshold that the Mike Harris government put in place in the 1990s; the Liberals also allowed the averaging of overtime pay, but they required that any agreement between worker and employer be approved by the Ministry of Labour.

Another big change involves construction unions: under existing provincial law, municipalities, school boards, and other local bodies can be considered “construction employers” — an arrangement critics say can have absurd consequences. In 2012, the Toronto Star reported that the Toronto District School Board was being charged large sums for trivial work orders (notoriously, $143 to screw in a pencil sharpener). In Waterloo Region, two workers on a weekend job site managed to get the entire municipality deemed a “construction employer” through a 2014 ruling. Waterloo Region asserted that this resulted in a dramatic decline in bidders for municipal contracts, and therefore also in higher prices. A 2018 study by the conservative think tank Cardus estimated that union “oligopolies” cost taxpayers $370 million annually.

Bill 66 would declare municipalities, schools, and other public bodies to be “non-construction employers” and dissolve any collective-bargaining agreements in place.

Changes to child-care rules

Bill 66 also changes provincial child-care guidelines. When the Liberals revamped the daycare law in 2014, they capped the number of children under the age of two that an unlicensed operator could care for. The government is proposing to raise the limit from two to three, or, if there are two or more caregivers, from four to six.

The NDP and Liberals have criticized the proposal, saying that it would put children at risk, but the government has called the Liberals’ introduction of the cap a “knee-jerk” move spurred by headline-grabbing cases earlier this decade of children dying at unlicensed daycares.

The Tories also intend to clean up a small mess created last year when the Liberals brought in new rules that effectively shut kids under the age of six out of unlicensed after-school programs, causing chaos for a number of families. The new rules would once again let kids four and up attend unlicensed programs.

A bunch of changes for farmers

Probably the biggest single section of Bill 66 — just under a third of the bill’s 13,000 or so words — applies to the province’s farmers and to the food sector more broadly. The Tories are proposing to make a number of rules less onerous for farms and food processors: certain types of registration, for example, would be simplified, and “ornamental horticulture” workers would be covered by the same labour law that governs other agricultural workers. The bill would also make it easier for the province to provide direct financial assistance both to farmers and to organizations that lend to farmers.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture stated in a press release late last week that it was generally supportive of the “red tape” elements of Bill 66, but it strongly criticized Schedule 10, which the government now says it won’t proceed with. The OFA said that weakened restrictions on urban sprawl could mean “death by a thousand cuts” for Ontario’s prime agricultural farmland.

Odds and ends

The bill also includes a few other changes that are relatively small but could end up having a substantial effect. The government proposes to end the Ontario Energy Board’s regulation of electricity sub-metering, which could lead to higher electricity rates for renters. Bill 66 would also repeal two pieces of legislation that the government says are outdated and unnecessary: the Wireless Services Agreement Act, which the Tories say the CRTC’s cellphone-company regulations render redundant, and the Pawnbrokers Act, which the government says duplicates licensing powers at the municipal level.

Both the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police have raised concerns about a wholesale repeal of the Pawnbrokers Act. The AMO has stated that it “would eliminate law enforcement tools aimed at enforcing against theft and enabling the search and return of stolen goods.” And police chiefs are reportedly worried that having a patchwork of municipal rules could make it harder to catch and prosecute thieves.

In response to these concerns, a ministry spokesperson told TVO.org in an email that the repeal of the Pawnbrokers Act would not take effect until municipalities had had substantial time to prepare.

The bill could also potentially be amended at the committee stage after the legislature returns, on February 19.

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