There’s going to be a void at Queen’s Park when it re-opens for legislative business on Monday. Glen Murray, the Liberal MPP for Toronto-Centre and a former minister of environment and climate change, officially resigned on September 1, and Premier Kathleen Wynne has said he won’t be replaced. The province has 107 ridings, but until next summer it will have only 106 MPPs.
Murray’s absence will be felt in question period and in cabinet (not everyone will miss him, but they’ll at least notice) and it’ll pose a practical challenge for the government, too: one less Liberal MPP means more effort spent managing attendance at Queen’s Park to ensure important business goes through, and less time making positive announcements about the good work the government is doing — not to mention the large sums of money it’s spending.
Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election next June, and the Liberals are trying to keep their heads above double-digit poll deficits even as they eliminate the province’s budget deficits.
The government has a number of major files it’ll want to tackle before the legislature is dissolved in the spring, and some of them will affect the daily lives of everyone in Ontario. Here are the highlights:
Labour and the minimum wage
The Liberals sent Bill 148, their major labour-law update, out for cross-province consultations this summer, and now it’s going to be among the first orders of business. The government wants to raise the minimum wage to $14 starting on January 1, and to $15 in 2019. Bill 148 also contains major changes to rules regarding temporary and contract employment, and Ontario’s business community has already made its displeasure known. The Liberals have amended the bill in committee, and it’s going to go through another round of debate and committee hearings before final passage.
Labour Minister Kevin Flynn says the government is looking only at tweaks, not major revisions. For example, during the summer committee hearings the government heard from municipalities who said that provisions for “on-call” shift workers would dramatically increase the costs of some municipal services (such as snow clearing). Amendments in August carved out a municipal exemption.
The federal government has declared that marijuana will be legal in Canada as of July 1, 2018. That’s fine for Ottawa to decide, but many of the most complicated questions will be left for the provinces and municipalities to figure out.
On Friday, the public got its first peek at what Ontario’s framework will look like. The Liberals are proposing to make the legal age for pot consumption 19, the same as for tobacco and alcohol. While federal law will allow people under 18 to possess up to five grams, the Liberals want to make it a provincial offence to have any at that age. Anyone who wants to buy legal pot will have to shop at one of 40 LCBO-run stores set to open by Canada Day.
There are numerous questions left to answer, including (in no particular order): how much this will cost, how much money it will raise, how the province’s framework will work with First Nations, and how the rules might be expanded in the future as the government becomes less anxiety-ridden about the prospect of legal weed.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi received a report from Justice Michael Tulloch on how to improve Ontario’s badly broken system of police oversight. The day Tulloch’s report went public Naqvi promised changes would come in a major bill in the fall. The contents of whatever bill Naqvi brings to the house will show whether the government has the stomach to tackle this issue properly or whether, like many parties before it, the Liberals will make only half-hearted reforms, so as not to face accusations of being harder on cops than on criminals.
Recent cases of questionable conduct by police — such as the alleged assault of Dafonte Miller last December (which was only reported to the Special Investigations Unit in April) — may give the Liberals the push they need to tackle the issue more seriously than previous governments have.
Spring saw the Liberals bring in a number of changes to housing policy, including a new tax on foreign homebuyers, who were said to be driving up prices across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. (Of course, evidence that they were the primary driver of housing costs was always scant, especially given how quickly prices rebounded in Vancouver after similar taxes were put in place there.) But perhaps the most momentous changes are yet to come. Wynne, a Toronto MPP, is fulfilling a long-held desire of the city’s urbanist left to defang the Ontario Municipal Board, a tribunal with the power to override local councils’ decisions when they conflict with provincial policy or sound planning.
If the Liberal bill goes through as proposed, the OMB would be renamed the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, and the rules surrounding planning appeals would be substantially changed. The tribunal would no longer be able to throw out a council decision and replace it with wisdom of its own, and more cases would be aimed at mediation instead of antagonistic win-lose decisions.
And then there are the surprises
The government can make all the plans it wants, but last year showed just how little plans matter in the face of events. The Liberals didn’t expect to lose the Scarborough-Rouge River by-election to the Tories' Raymond Cho; they didn’t expect to have to hastily promise to remove the HST from electricity bills (an NDP idea they’d consistently mocked); they didn’t expect to spend the next several months still on the defensive over hydro prices; they didn’t expect to spend the spring dealing with runaway housing prices while trying to pass their budget and their “Fair Hydro Plan,” the latter of which will defer high electricity rates a few years into the future.
The next few months may yet offer the party some unpleasant surprises. Toronto’s housing market could collapse, threatening both the economy and the balanced budget. Donald Trump has the capacity to upend Ontario’s manufacturing sector with a tweet. Even if things down south stay calm, Wynne has troubles up here. The trial of two Liberals, one a former Wynne staffer, started this week in Sudbury for non-criminal election law charges related to the 2015 by-election in that city. Later this month, in Toronto, two more Liberals will go on trial for charges related to wiping hard drives shortly before Wynne became premier in 2013. While the broad outlines of the charges are well-known at this point, it’s always possible the trials could publicize something new and damaging.
For legislators, Murphy’s Law is good to keep in mind: whatever can go wrong, will.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Lorne Coe won the Scarborough-Rouge River by-election.
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