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Government, opposition look to reset narrative as Ontario legislature returns

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is set to reopen the provincial legislature on Tuesday with hopes of putting the bruising Greenbelt scandal behind him and focusing on the next provincial election – looking to define which political party is focused on making life more affordable.

Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are set to table omnibus legislation at Queen’s Park – the Get it Done Act – which will touch on several affordability measures, including road rolls, licence plate renewals and carbon pricing.

All are policies that could score the party political points with voters while having little impact on the provincial budget.

Get It Done Act

The same legislation is expected to deal with the environmental assessment process for construction and the official plans of municipalities that the government reversed during the last legislative session.

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The bulk of the bill, however, seems to be designed to return the government to its “for the people” roots with populist measures designed to boost the premier’s popularity.

The government announced its legislation would:

  • Force a future government to hold a referendum if it wants to introduce carbon pricing.
  • Ban road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway, Don Valley Parkway and all 400-series highways, except the privately owned 407.
  • Eliminate the need for drivers to manually renew their licence plates.
  • Permanently freeze licence card renewal fees and force future governments to make legislative changes before increasing fees.

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University of Toronto political science professor Andrew McDougall told Global News the government is using its legislation to draw a line between it and its political rivals.

“It wants to distinguish itself from the opposition on the question of taxes and it wants to make it clear that the Conservatives are the party of low taxes, middle-class affordability,” McDougall told Global News.

“They also want to portray themselves as the party of the ‘little guy.’”

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While some of the restrictive legislative policies could easily be repealed by a future government, the premier’s underlying motive for the legislative changes seemed to be laid bare at a recent news conference.

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Ford targeted Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie as the “queen of the carbon tax,” suggesting that the government was using government policy to wedge a political opponent.

The Ontario PC Party later fired off fundraising emails to supporters using similar language.

Progressive Conservative insiders told Global News the party has a “desire to frame the new leader” of the Ontario Liberals after recent polling suggested the former governing party is now only eight points behind Ford’s party.

Insiders said while the government failed to “move the ball forward” in the fall session of the legislature, the Progressive Conservatives are using “campaign-style tactics” to prepare for the next election.

Funding announcements in 2024, insiders said, would pave the way for construction in 2025 and possible completion in 2026, when Ford will face voters in his third provincial election campaign.

Other legislation

The Ford government has already said reversals it announced previously will be enshrined in law when the house returns.

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A backtrack on the commitment to split Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga into separate, single-tier cities will need to be brought about through legislation. The initial decision to split the three up, including a January 2025 deadline, will be need to be modified as part of a new law.

After losing a second court ruling over Bill 124, the wage restraint legislation that capped public sector wages at one per cent per year for three years, the Ford government has also promised to repeal the law.

The spring legislative term will also be defined by the government’s budget, with the impact of recent announcements on the Ford government’s attempts to balance the books to be revealed.

Ford had promised a surplus with Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy but a series of recent announcements, including $3 billion to build a new train line to Milton, could stall that progress.

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In a February update, Bethlenfalvy said Ontario expected to end the financial year with a $4.5-billion deficit, while also so far hanging onto a large contingency fund.

The current deficit projection for 2023-24 is $4.5 billion, which is $1.1 billion lower than the forecast in Bethlenfalvy’s fall economic statement, but still significantly higher than the $1.3 billion he was eyeing at the time of last year’s budget.

The budget will also include new details on how the province views market conditions for housing starts and which areas have seen the highest spending in the past year.

NDP to focus on more solutions

When the house resumes, Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles has suggested her party will focus on proposing concrete policy after months of criticism around the Greenbelt scandal.

Recent polling has her party now sitting in third place, behind the Ontario Liberals, despite the NDP finishing second in the 2022 election and forming the official Opposition.

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After a caucus retreat at Queen’s Park last week, Stiles told reporters to expect to see her party table “ambitious legislation” on issues like health care, rent control and cost-of-living issues.

Stiles also said she may spend less time at Queen’s Park itself, choosing to travel to communities around Ontario to listen to requests from various ridings across the province.

The Greenbelt scandal, questions about Ontario Place and concerns about donors may play less of a part in the NDP’s opposition strategy when the house returns.

“It is our job as the official Opposition to hold the government to account,” Stiles said.

“At the same time as we do that, though, we know that we have to be putting forward positive solutions that can actually solve the problems that people are struggling with in the province of Ontario.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

&© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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