Ontario’s Legislature Returns – With Some Big Expectations

As the Ontario Legislature’s spring session begins at Queen’s Park today, observers are looking for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government to show progress on a large number of substantial public policy priorities, especially at a time where an unprecedented alignment with the federal and municipal governments has created high expectations for new stimulus spending programs.

With budget preparations actively underway at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa, both Liberal governments have signaled that deficit reduction is not a major priority. (Note: The Ontario government has announced its budget will be released on February 25, 2016, and has maintained its commitment to a balanced budget by 2017/18)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that the federal government may not balance its budget before the end of its first term, and will instead focus on the debt-to-GDP ratio as a measure of the country’s fiscal stability.

In Ontario, the Fall Economic Statement reiterated the Wynne government’s commitment to a balanced budget by 2017-18, but the path to balancing the province’s books remains unclear and will likely require further cuts or new revenue measures.

Instead, both governments have made infrastructure investment a priority, which has raised expectations especially among municipal leaders who have been actively – and collectively – lobbying for investment in local infrastructure and transit.

Delivering increased investments in infrastructure will be among many of the priorities including the cap-and-trade initiative, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, and promises for primary health reform, where the Wynne government will want to show progress during this legislative session.  Each of these priorities has established timelines, requires significant policy development and operational expertise, highlighting the challenge of the multitude of items on the government’s agenda.

Can They Deliver?

The underlying question is whether the Ontario government will be able to meet the high expectations that it has created for itself. Whereas the Wynne government was previously able to assign blame for lack of progress in some policy areas to the federal Conservative government, the Liberals’ current alignment with the Trudeau government means that there will be no more political excuses if the province is not able to show progress.

In addition, a decisive win by the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in last week’s Whitby-Oshawa by-election – despite a concerted effort by the Ontario Liberals and even an appearance by the Prime Minister – could have the impact of refocusing the Wynne government’s priorities and resources on political priorities in advance of the next general election in 2018.

It will be of interest to see whether some policy items begin to drop off the government’s agenda and the Liberals begin to focus on a smaller number of policy areas to support a re-election campaign.  Alternatively, if the government starts to take on new policy priorities over the coming months, the increasingly high volume could prove challenging to manage.

Climate Change: Cap and Trade

The government is in the process of drafting its cap and trade regulation, which they intend to release this spring and have in place for 2017. The combination of this file’s velocity and complexity will continue to make it one of the most challenging on the Government’s agenda, especially given that touches on so much of the province’s economy.

While large final emitters have been engaged in one-on-one discussions, as well as through their various associations, the policy’s impacts on small and medium sized companies, primarily through natural gas and transportation costs, will need to be top of mind for the Wynne government.

Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP)

Following a lack of consensus from provincial Finance Ministers to expand the Canadian Pension Plan in January, the Ontario government is moving forward with its plan to implement the ORPP for employers without registered workplace pension plans. One step toward simplifying the implementation of the ORPP was reached this weekend when the federal government agreed to a framework to collect ORPP payments on behalf of Ontario. This had been something to which former Prime Minister Harper had been opposed.

Health Care Reform

In an effort to better manage health care spending, the government is reforming health care delivery models with an emphasis on community care, over hospital care.  In December, the government announced that Community Care Access Centres would be eliminated, and replaced by the Local Health Integration Networks that will be responsible for planning and oversight of local community care.

New Lobbyist Rules

The new Integrity Commissioner, the Honourable J. David Wake, will be responsible for implementing new lobbying rules passed in the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014. The new rules affect both consultant lobbyists and in house lobbyists. Investigative powers, increased transparency and changes to how you register and calculate lobbying time are key components of the new rules.

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