It’s back to work for MPPs and back to the future for Premier Doug Ford’s re-elected Progressive Conservatives, who are resurrecting the spring budget that served as their campaign platform.
As members return to the legislature Monday almost 10 weeks after the June 2 election, their first order of business will be to select a speaker to referee the proceedings.
The following day, Ford’s Conservatives will unveil a speech from the throne — to be read by Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell — outlining their governing agenda for the next four years, and table a budget.
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy will reintroduce his April 28 fiscal blueprint with only one significant change: an annual five per cent hike to Ontario Disability Support Program payments.
That $425 million increase is a relatively minor adjustment in Bethlenfalvy’s record $198.6-billion spending plan with its COVID-19 pandemic-inflated $19.9-billion deficit.
Ford emphasized the Tories, under fire over the province’s latest emergency-room crisis, plan to hit the ground running this week.
“As our government implements its ambitious plan to build Ontario, as we unlock the province’s economic potential, we need all hands on deck,” the premier told reporters in Stratford last Wednesday.
But before MPPs can begin their legislative work, they must elect a speaker — and possibly shatter the last glass ceiling for women at Queen’s Park.
While women have served as premiers, treasurers, ministers, secretaries of cabinet, deputy ministers, opposition leaders, chiefs of staff, press gallery presidents, and sergeants-at-arms, there has never been a female speaker of the legislature.
Conservative MPP Nina Tangri (Mississauga-Streetsville), a former cabinet minister, is hoping to change that.
She is squaring off against Tory MPP Ted Arnott (Wellington-Halton Hills), who has been speaker since 2018.
“I really didn’t want this to be about being ‘the first woman,’ but if it happens, then, yes, we’ll make history and that’s exciting,” Tangri told the Star.
“I just want to bring a little bit of change. The response has been good,” the one-term MPP said of her meetings with members of the PC, NDP, Liberal and Green caucuses to address their concerns.
Arnott, a 32-year veteran and the longest-serving MPP in the house, said he doesn’t look at the vote as a race between himself and Tangri.
“I don’t feel I’m running against anyone as the incumbent speaker … I feel that I’m running to continue the work that I’ve been doing,” he said.
“I wish Nina well. I think very highly of her.”
Tangri echoed that sentiment, stressing she has “tremendous respect for Ted — I supported him last time,” but believes she can bring a different tenor and tone to legislative debate.
“I’ve been a backbencher, a minister, and I’ve served as a standing committee chair, so I’ve seen it from every side. I respect everybody’s point of view. I think decorum and being respectful is important,” she said.
Behind the scenes, Ford has indicated his support for the woman he appointed as associate minister of small business and red tape reduction last year.
But the premier is only one of 124 votes in a 1 p.m. secret ballot that frees MPPs to do as they please.
“Some of the government members say that I’m too partial to the opposition and I hear the same thing from the opposition in reverse,” said Arnott.
“We have consciously, daily tried to be impartial, fair, and ensure that the members understand that.”
The job of speaker pays $152,914 — up from a base MPP’s salary of $116,550 but less than the $165,851 that ministers earn — and comes with a spacious apartment on the third floor of the legislature.
After the speaker is elected, the house will adjourn for a day, resuming at 1 p.m. Tuesday for a throne speech that will reiterate the Conservatives’ campaign pledge to “get it done.”
That means a focus on building new transportation, health, and long-term care infrastructure as Ontario tries to recover from a COVID-19 pandemic that began in March 2020.
In an unusual move, the Tories will table the budget shortly after the lieutenant governor finishes her remarks.
Bethlenfalvy’s spring spending plan was introduced on the eve of the election campaign that began May 4, so it must be revived for debate and passage in the coming weeks.
With the legislature to sit for the next month or so, it should pass in September.
The budget promises income-tax cuts for hundreds of thousands of Ontarians earning less than $50,000 a year, additional health-care spending, and touts two controversial new Greater Toronto Area highways.
Both the proposed 60-kilometre Milton-to-Vaughan Highway 413 and 16.2-kilometre Bradford Bypass — linking Highways 400 and 404 — were cornerstone PC campaign promises in the June election.
The Tories are also pledging to widen Highway 401 in the GTA and eastern Ontario, expand Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, and build a new twin bridge over the Welland Canal on the Queen Elizabeth Way between St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In the 67 days since the June 2 election, the political landscape has shifted with both the New Democrats and Liberals looking for new full-time leaders.
Andrea Horwath, now a candidate for mayor of Hamilton, resigned as NDP leader on election night, minutes before Liberal Steven Del Duca did the same.
Peter Tabuns is interim NDP leader until a full-time replacement is chosen in early March, and John Fraser is reprising his 2018-20 duties as interim Liberal leader for the foreseeable future.
Tabuns said Friday that Ford’s honeymoon with voters is “already over” thanks to the rising cost of living and problems in hospital emergency rooms due to staff shortages.
“People are getting hit hard with higher prices (and) they don’t think the government is looking out for them,” he said.
“They’re living through hospital closures, hallway medicine and painfully long waits for care. Inflation is eating away at their pay cheques, and corporations are using inflation as an excuse to make even bigger fortunes off us.”
Another significant change over the past two months is the revelation that Ford plans to give the cities of Toronto and Ottawa “strong mayor” powers.
As first disclosed by the Star on July 19, the premier wants the mayors of Ontario’s two largest cities to be empowered to oversee budgets and act unilaterally if need be.
The dramatic move would water down the influence of city councillors and give the mayors greater authority over financial matters and appointments.
“We’ll do a trial and we’ll look at (extending the powers to) the rest of the mayors of relatively large cities” after the Oct. 24 municipal elections, the premier said last month.
Legislation implementing the reforms is expected within days from Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, but Ford emphasized “two-thirds of the council can overrule the mayor,” so there would be a check on any new powers.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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