TORONTO — Major health-care reform, policing changes and an inaugural budget with a deeper look into the government’s austerity agenda are on tap at the Ontario legislature as politicians return Tuesday from a winter break.
In addition to the Progressive Conservative government’s own priorities, and an expected raft of new legislation, Premier Doug Ford and his ministers will also face tough questions about autism funding, class sizes, student loans, and a friend of Ford’s tapped to be the next provincial police commissioner.
Legislation is expected before the end of the month to create a health “super agency,” moving local health integration networks, Cancer Care Ontario, eHealth Ontario and other organizations under one umbrella, a leaked draft bill suggests.
The NDP has warned — and will likely continue warning — that aspects of those plans open the door to further privatization, though the health minister has attempted to calm fears by saying there will be no two-tier system or queue jumping, and long-term care inspections and the air ambulance service will not be outsourced.
New policing laws will also be coming — introduced on Tuesday, a government source said. The Tories halted laws introduced by the previous government to strengthen oversight of law enforcement and redefine police officers’ duties.
“I think there’s a strong feeling out there that the police system needs some fixing and we really do want to restore that trust in the police and I think you’re going to see legislation along those lines,” said Government House Leader Todd Smith.
No date has yet been announced for the budget, but as the first one for a government with a stated goal of slashing a $13.5-billion deficit, the document is expected to provide a picture of how Ontario can get back into the black.
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli has said the budget will show a path to balance, though he hasn’t specified if the government will eliminate the deficit within its four-year mandate.
“I like to use my Goldilocks reference to balancing the budget,” he said last week. “It won’t be too soon, because quite frankly nobody would believe it. It won’t be too long because anybody can do that. It will be just right.”
Though Smith said the government will be introducing a lot of legislation between Tuesday and when the House rises again in June for its summer break, the government will also be on the defensive on a number of files.
Criticism has been swirling over the past two weeks over changes to the autism program that families and advocates say mean many children won’t get the treatment they need. Parents have been protesting at politicians’ constituency offices, and are talking about planning a large one at the legislature. The NDP is also expected to push in question period for changes to the new program.
“We are going to passionately stand up for the people of Ontario,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “We’re going to fight for those families and children that have autism that this government has so cruelly kicked to the curb.”
The Opposition NDP will also likely raise concerns about the government’s consideration of removing class size caps for kindergarten and primary classes, student assistance changes that favour loans over grants — students are also planning a protest at the legislature Tuesday — and the next head of the Ontario Provincial Police.
“Is Mr. Ford still hell bent on making his friend Ron Taverner the OPP commissioner despite a tidal wave of suspicion and opposition?” Horwath said.
Taverner, a Toronto police superintendent and long-time Ford friend, delayed his appointment until after an integrity commissioner investigation. But Ford has suggested Taverner’s appointment could go ahead no matter what the integrity commissioner rules.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press