What’s ON: The week that was in Ontario politics (November 29-December 3)

Responding to the variant, the auditor general's report, and campaign-style promises
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Dec 03, 2021
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk's annual report is always a major event on the Ontario political calendar. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Every Friday, TVO.org provides a summary of the most notable developments in Ontario politics over the past week.

Here’s what caught our attention:

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More booster shots: In response to the Omicron variant, the province has announced people 50 and older can start booking third doses of COVID-19 vaccine starting Dec. 13. Up until now, boosters were limited to a smaller population, including people 70 or older and those who have a compromised immune system. Eligible Ontarians can schedule a booster shot through the province’s COVID-19 vaccination portal, by calling the provincial vaccine contact centre, through Indigenous-led vaccination clinics, and in select pharmacies and primary care settings. Appointments will be scheduled approximately 168 days (about six months) after a person’s second dose. The province also says it plans to expand booster shot eligibility further in January.

Auditor General: Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released her annual report this week. The finding that got the most attention was her conclusion that the province gave almost $1 billion in unnecessary aid to businesses during the pandemic. Lysyk said there were thousands of companies that either got more money than they needed, or got money when they didn’t even qualify. “I understand that the government was dealing with an unprecedented crisis,” Lysyk wrote in her report. “But even in a crisis, systems should be in place to make sure that only eligible businesses received taxpayer dollars, and program funds reach those who need it most.” In response, Premier Doug Ford argued that time was of the essence in delivering aid and that many companies would not have survived if the money had taken too long to arrive. He also questioned some of Lysyk’s methodology, saying it painted an inaccurate picture of the situation.

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Highway 413: In her report, Lysyk also concluded that the proposed Highway 413 that will run between Milton and Vaughan — a priority for the Progressive Conservative government — is “inconsistent” with land-use planning policies.

Minimum wage: Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said on Tuesday that a New Democrat government would raise the minimum wage to $20 by 2026. The plan calls for raising the minimum wage from $15 to $16 next October, and then raising it by $1 every year until it reaches the $20 mark. “Minimum wage earners are working their tails off and still can’t get ahead of the bills,” she said. Under the Progressive Conservatives, the minimum wage will go up to $15 on Jan. 1, 2022, and then have annual increases tied to inflation.

MZOs: Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca promised on Tuesday that as premier he would eliminate the use of ministerial zoning orders. MZOs allow the provincial government to speed along the regulatory approval of development projects and override municipalities on planning decisions. The Progressive Conservative government has been criticized by the Auditor General, environmental groups, and others for its frequent use of MZO power. It has issued 57 MZOs since 2018, three times more than the Liberals did between 2013 and 2018. “The abuse and the misuse of this power by Doug Ford has made it crystal clear that it is no longer the mechanism that will help us build the communities that we need,” Del Duca said. The government counters that the use of MZOs has allowed it to fast-track desperately needed housing, long-term care beds, and infrastructure.

Working for Workers Act: Labour Minister Monte McNaughton’s Working for Workers Act passed the legislature on Tuesday. The act included a suite of high-profile changes to Ontario labour law, including mandatory right-to-disconnect policies for companies with 25 or more employees, a ban on non-compete clauses in work contracts, and the removal of certain barriers immigrants encounter when trying to find work in their chosen field.

Ring of Fire: Neskantaga First Nation in northwestern Ontario is taking the province to court, alleging the government is failing to conduct proper consultations on its plans for the mineral-rich area known as the Ring of Fire. Part of an all-season road to the Ring of Fire is slated to run through Neskantaga territory. But the community says in court documents that they have yet to be adequately consulted, and that provincial law is “silent” when it comes to how to properly consult with Indigenous communities in crisis. Neskantaga has been under a boil-water advisory for 26 years, and is still in a state of emergency declared in 2013 after seven community members died by suicide in less than a year.   

Nuclear power: Ontario Power Generation has chosen GE Hitachi to construct a small modular reactor, known as an SMR, at the Darlington generation station in Clarington. Operation of the reactor is expected to start as early as 2028. “SMRs can provide reliable and emission-free energy while creating jobs, economic growth and export opportunities,” Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith said Thursday. Some consider SMRs to be the future of the nuclear industry, because they are supposed to be simpler and cheaper to build than larger, traditional reactors. But the commercial SMR industry is in its infancy and it’s unclear whether it will live up to the hype.

Long-term care: The province is making available $388 million in lending from Infrastructure Ontario to not-for-profit long-term-care homes. According to Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips, the money will help “get shovels in the ground and help accelerate the development of long-term care homes in communities all across the province.”

EV chargers: The provincial government has announced that electric-vehicle charging stations will be installed at the ONroute network of rest stop locations along the 400 and 401 highways. By summer, 17 of the 23 ONroute stops should have chargers, and 3 more will be added by the end of 2022. The remaining 3 — Maple, Ingersoll and Newcastle — will have to wait a couple of years for chargers while those locations undergo renovations. The move is a bit of an about-face for the Progressive Conservative government, which halted the construction of a network of charging stations when it came to power in 2018.

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COVID-19’s long tail: Matt Gurney writes about how the pandemic is going to have a negative impact on the health care system for years to come, in terms of delayed tests and procedures. “Thousands of procedures are backlogged. Retaining health-care staff is itself a crisis. Self-reported rates of burnout and exhaustion among staff are alarmingly high. Anecdotally, I’m hearing more and more reports of long waits for undeniably essential or urgent care. Some of these anecdotes would horrify you.”

COVID-19 up north: TVO.org Northeastern Hub reporter Nick Dunne explains how the region he covers became a surprise COVID-19 hotspot, with Sudbury, Algoma, and Timiskaming each facing increased cases — and its own challenges in overcoming them.

Jobs: The latest numbers from Statistics Canada shows Ontario’s unemployment rate is now below pre-pandemic levels at about 6.4 per cent. The province added slightly more than 68,000 jobs in November – more than 67,000 of them full-time.

Boozing it up: If you plan to celebrate the holidays with a little alcohol, the LCBO suggests you shop now. The reason is the global supply chain issues affecting the whole economy. “We’re experiencing the most supply chain challenges with products that are imported to Canada and in high demand by customers worldwide. In some instances, additional factors such as shortage of raw materials and difficult growing conditions also limit the amount of inventory available from some suppliers,” Nick Nanos, the LCBO’s chief supply chain officer, said in an email. But don’t panic-buy: The head of Drinks Ontario, an importer trade association, told the Toronto Star there will be plenty of choice on the shelves. You just might not always be able to find your favourites.

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