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MPPs set to return to Queen’s Park with health care, budget and byelection on the table

Ontario politicians are preparing to return to Queen’s Park for the first time in 2023 for a legislative session that will overhaul the delivery of health care.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the province’s decision to allow development in portions of the Greenbelt continues in the background. And the Ontario NDP has a new leader.

As MPPs prepare to return to the legislature on Feb. 21, here are some developments to watch.

legislation

The health-care file is one the Ford government has been especially active on, as the province attempts to catch up on the surgical backlog after years of pandemic disruption.

During the summer, shortly after winning re-election, the government introduced a controversial bill that allowed hospitals to charge alternative levels of care patients a daily fee to remain in a bed, instead of moving them to long-term care.

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The Ford government also announced its first round of health-care delivery changes in the summer, and tweaked registration rules for nurses in late-October. The beginning of 2023 saw pharmacists given prescription powers for some common ailments.

A decision note prepared for health minister Sylvia Jones in the summer of 2022, and obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request, includes a range of groups who may have enhanced prescription powers. The document laid out proposed regulatory changes for chiropodists, midwives, optometrists, pharmacists and naturopaths to expand what they can prescribe for patients.


Click to play video: 'Focus Ontario: Toronto – Post Tory'


Focus Ontario: Toronto–Post Tory


That push is likely to continue when the legislature resumes, with the health portfolio among the most important.

In January, Premier Doug Ford announced his government planned to introduce “as of right” rules that would allow health-care workers registered in other parts of the country to immediately begin working in Ontario.

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The province also intends to change health-care rules to allow for more flexibility. Nurses, paramedics and respiratory therapists are among those who will be greenlit to work outside their traditional settings “as long as they have the knowledge skill, and judgment to do so.”

Some, including Ontario Paramedic Association chief Darryl Wilton, are cautious about the expansion of scope.

“As you can imagine, when paramedics show up at a hospital, it’s a leaf for them,” he previously told Global News. “There’s no paramedic who ever went to college or university and received training to work in hospitals for hours on end.”

The Ford government has promised legislation to implement its changes to the health-care delivery, allowing for more surgeries and diagnostics to take place for-profit clinics.

Doug Ford pledged legislative changes that will “allow existing community diagnostic centers to conduct more MRI and CT scanning.” Beginning in 2024, that will expand to include knee and hip replacements.

The legislation to expand the scope of practice, relax registration rules for health-care workers and expand private delivery of health care will be introduced in February, the government said.

Scandals

The Ontario housing minister goes into the new legislative session with an investigation by Ontario’s integrity commissioner hanging over him.

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Ford, henceforth, faces the prospect of a complaint about a stag and doe party for his daughter’s wedding that was attended by the premiere developers described as “personal friends.”

In mid-January, both Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general accepted requests from opposition leaders to investigate the Ford government’s decision to allow development in 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt.

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A complaint from Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles was accepted and the integrity commissioner will investigate Clark’s actions in the build up to the decision to open portions of the Greenbelt for building to determine if any developers who benefited from the decision were given advanced notice.

Clark has said he “looks forward to being cleared of any wrongdoing.”

On the same mid-January day, Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general, said she would be conducting an audit around the Greenbelt changes.

Lysyk said the government had assured her they would offer “full cooperation” during the audit, adding that while the “exact scope of the audit has not as yet been finalized,” the specific requests for a value-for-money and environmental audit by opposition leaders would be taken into consideration.

Meanwhile, Ford — who Ontario’s integrity commissioner declined to investigate over the Greenbelt deal when he began looking into Clark — faces fresh questions after Global News revealed that developers had attended a stag and doe for the premier’s daughter, dubbed “pay for play” by one sources.

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Recently, at a tense press conference, Ford confirmed tickets to the event costing $150, adding “no one can influence the Fords.”

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Multiple people who said they received direct invitations raised concerns with Global News about the gathering and shared their discomfort with being invited and the overall optics of the event.

Sources told Global News that invitees were “browbeaten” into buying tickets, while large and small lobby government relations firms were asked to purchase tickets at $150 each, which meant they were eligible for a number of door prizes, including a Vespa scooter.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles confirmed to Global News she intends to submit a complaint to Ontario’s integrity commissioner, which — if accepted — would trigger an investigation into the premiere.

2023 budget

In 2022, the Ontario budget doubled as a campaign document for the Progressive Conservative Party during the election campaign. This year, that financial blueprint must be tabled by March 31.

A recent theme of reports from the Financial Accountability Office — the watchdog that monitors Ontario’s spending — has been unbudgeted contingency funds. The FAO has noted underspending on files such as education and healthcare, while broad rainy-day funds are increasing.

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Financial accountability officer Peter Weltman has said he is concerned about the billions of dollars in the province’s contingency fund, citing a lack of transparency.

Finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said he fundamentally disagrees with Weltman. “I wouldn’t be doing my job as minister of finance if I didn’t build some prudence and contingency funds,” he said.

Among the key projects that were included as pillars of the 2022 budget were highway construction, cancellation of the license plate fee and capital funds to build or expand hospitals.

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The Ford government ran for re-election under a promise to “get it done,” with a focus on construction and building. Housing, highways and transit projects were key promises made.

At the same time as the delivery of costly building projects, the province has promised to focus on fiscally responsible spending. In its third-quarter fiscal update, Ontario reported a $6.5-billion deficit for the 2022-23 fiscal year, an improvement of $6.4 billion from its fall economic statement.

Bethlenfalvy said the improvement was due to higher corporate tax revenue and increased revenue from sales taxes. Real gross domestic product was estimated to have increased by 3.7 per cent in 2022, he said.

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Revenues are forecast to be $9.6 billion higher than forecast in November’s fall economic statement.

Consultations have taken place across Ontario on the budget, including with municipalities, which are claiming potentially massive financial losses from a reduction in the fees that developers have to pay them.

Opposition parties

The upcoming sitting of the legislature will be the first for Marit Stiles as leader of the Opposition, after being confirmed on Feb. 5. She was the only challenger.

In her acceptance speech, Stiles promised to defeat the Ford government in the next election.

“Today we started the countdown to the end of Doug Ford’s disastrous government and the beginning of a bright new future for Ontario,” Stiles said of the sitting premier in a speech to party supporters following the official declaration of his position at the party helmet.

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The Ontario Liberals, headed in the interim by John Fraser, have just begun to search for their next leader.

Ontario Greens leader Mike Schreiner was approached to run for the role in a high-profile, audacious bid by a series of senior Liberal figures. He initially knocked back the approach, before asking for time to consider the best path forward.

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Several others were sounding out the possibility of running to lead the Ontario Liberals.

The opposition parties and government will have a chance to gauge public opinion at the polls, with at least one by-election taking place in the near future.

The by-election for Hamilton Centre, vacated by Andrew Horwath who is now the city mayor, has been set for March 16. Horwath and the Ontario NDP held the seat since it was created in 2007.

Kitchener Center MPP Laura Mae Lindo has also announced her plan to resign her seat to pursue a university job in July 2023.

Legislature renovation

Another issue for the government to contend with is the upcoming renovation of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, the building itself.

In a recent interview, house leader Paul Calandra said a new location would need to be found within the next four to six years to setup an alternative legislature while the building underwent a renovation that would cost more than $1 billion and could last eight years.

The vast scale of repairs and upgrades needed in stately old Queen’s Park has been discussed on an increasingly urgent basis for the past several decades, with options on the table such as shutting it down block by block for the construction work.

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That no longer seems like an option, Calandra said.

“We will need to decamp and (have) a full restoration happen, and that just can’t happen in a piecemeal way and still have a functioning assembly at the same time, given the scale of what has happened here,” he said .

Speaker Ted Arnott said moving the assembly out of the building would end up being less disruptive and less expensive than doing it bit by bit.

“The longer we delay, the more likely it is that there’s going to be, I would say, a catastrophic failure of one of our systems, whether it’s plumbing or electrical, or ventilation,” he said in an interview.

“We can’t just let the building crumble around us.”

— With files from The Canadian Press