After a longer than originally scheduled summer recess, the Ontario Legislature officially returned this morning, opening the second session of the 42nd Parliament with a Speech From The Throne. The Speech, delivered by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, provided a glimpse of the Ford government’s priorities in this legislative session that will lead up to the June 2022 election. Supporting and protecting Ontarians through these next stages of the pandemic remains the government’s focus, with recovery through strong economic growth standing as an accompanying priority.
The Path to the Throne Speech
Somewhat under the radar, early in September, the PC government prorogued the Legislature, electing to delay its return until after the outcome of the federal election was known. Procedurally, proroguing the Legislature completes the legislative session that was underway, meaning that all legislation on the Order Paper or before a Standing Committee for Review is terminated. Similarly, matters referred to Standing Committees (for example, the statutory review of the Lobbyists Registration Act) are wiped clean – these will need to be referred again if a review is to take place.
During the previous legislative session, the government passed 94 bills including 29 Private Members’ Bills brought forward by both government and opposition MPPs. Only one government bill (Bill 306, York RegionWastewater Act, 2021) had yet to come into effect when the prorogation occurred. Bill 306 had just passed first reading when the Legislature was prorogued; the bill is expected to be re-introduced by the government early in the new session. Some 200 Private Members’ Bills also died on the Order Paper.
It is becoming more common for a government to prorogue and refocus. Following the Cabinet shuffle that took place this past spring, it is arguably an opportune time for Premier Ford’s government to reset their priorities ahead of the upcoming provincial election on June 2, 2022.
Speech From The Throne
The tone and many of the themes in this morning’s Speech From The Throne were foreshadowed in thePremier’s op-ed in the Toronto Sun published over the weekend. Encapsulated in the Speech’s title “Protecting Ontario’s Progress,” the government reflected on the significant challenges of the past 18 months presented by the pandemic and recognized the efforts of Ontarians to do their part, notably by getting vaccinated. In the latter half of the Speech, the government’s focus turned to economic and fiscal recovery, reiterating the commitment to fuel this recovery through economic growth rather than “painful tax hikes or spending cuts.”
During the pandemic, Premier Ford has gained popular support by taking a measured, cautious approach to the pandemic and listening to the advice of his scientific and public health advisors. Substantively, the Speech’s tone recalled this effective technique. Noting Ontario’s success in slowing the spread of the virus, the government reminded Ontarians that “Ontario has pursued the most cautious re-opening in Canada.” To address critics on the right, the government justified implementing vaccine certificates as a necessary tool to confront the Delta-driven fourth wave and to provide businesses “stability and certainty.” At the same time, the government acknowledged the decision to require proof of vaccination was not taken “easily” and that the measure will not be in place forever and will be “lifted when it is safe to do so, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health.” The paramount goal of the government moving forward is to avoid future lockdowns, indicating that any additional public health measures that may be needed in the future will be localized and targeted with decisions driven by hospitalization and intensive care unit use.
From a policy perspective, the government highlighted priorities and accomplishments in the health care and long-term care sectors. In health care, the move to address “hallway health care” pre-pandemic paid dividends as investments “to build Ontario’s hospital capacity” ensured the health care system was much better positioned to respond to this ongoing health crisis and any future ones. The government specifically highlighted the opening of the Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital, as well as targeted investments to bring new hospitals to Brampton and Windsor-Essex, ensuring greater hospital capacity to meet the needs of Ontarians. The Ford government also used the Speech to reiterate its robust advocacy efforts towards the federal government, in conjunction with every other province and territory, for an increase in the federal Canada Health Transfer.
In long-term care, the government highlighted that Ontario has been the first province to provide third doses of vaccine to residents of long-term care and now will require all staff in long-term care homes to be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical exemption. The government also provided an update on their longstanding commitment to build and redevelop beds for long-term care home residents, with the Province achieving 60% of its goal for new and upgraded long-term care beds. In total, the Province is investing $2.68B to achieve this commitment (which predated the pandemic, but the pandemic highlighted the level of neglect the system has faced). Further investments will increase the number of long-term care staff, including nurses and personal support workers, and will increase the amount of care each resident will receive. The only piece of upcoming legislation mentioned in the Speech From The Throne will address the long-term care sector and will protect residents by legislating better accountability, enforcement and transparency.
Finally, the Speech turned to the immense fiscal challenge created by unprecedented spending to address the pandemic. Although light on details (as is common in a Throne Speech), the government made clear economic and fiscal recovery will be driven by economic growth spurred by creating the conditions for long-term growth. The Ford government will build Ontario – not just roads, highways and transit - but by building an economy “…that makes Ontario the best place in the world to do business, work and raise a family –no matter where you live in the province.”
What’s To Come and What This Means For You
The Legislature will sit for a total of 8 weeks, rising on December 9, 2021. The first bill introduced was the perfunctory Bill 1, An Act to Perpetuate An Ancient Parliamentary Right, which allows the Legislature to function without the permission of the Crown. Within these eight weeks, there will be the Fall Economic Statement (this must be presented by November 15) and there should be a legislative package of red tape reduction measures, in the form of an omnibus Bill, introduced around the same time. And, as the Speech set out, there will be legislation to better protect long-term care residents.
Politically, we can expect the Premier to continue the measured tone seen in his op-ed; based on his personal approval ratings, it is clear this approach has been more successful than the more combative stance seen earlier in his mandate. Similarly, by highlighting the cautious (and successful) approach to the pandemic Ontario has taken, the Premier effectively neuters much of the Opposition’s complaints. While the NDP and Liberals call for smaller classes in schools, the Premier can legitimately demonstrate he has followed the advice of his public health advisors, maintaining restrictions in Ontario that other provinces are now implementing as a way to bring their fourth waves under better control.
Today’s Speech From The Throne provided the Ford government a chance to reset its policy priorities and to set up the coming months leading to the 2022 election. It is clear the pandemic will remain the leading priority, but also that the government will start to introduce the measures to spur our economic and fiscal recovery. To be successful with your government relations objectives, it will be critical to position your ask of government as advancing one or both of these priorities.