Jim McDonell: This Week at Queen’s Park

QUEEN’S PARK — The legislative session wrapped up this week with more controversy over the government’s financial reporting and a push to clear a number of bills through either Second or Third reading.

On Monday, the Financial Accountability Officer reaffirmed concerns previously expressed by the Auditor-General. The government is concealing the deficit from the public, and claims of a balanced budget are inaccurate.  He projected a $4 billion deficit this year, rising to $9.8 billion by 2021. On Wednesday, Official Opposition finance critic MPP Vic Fedeli called on the government to release their Pre-Election Report, so that the Auditor-General has sufficient time to report back to the public on the fiscal health of the province before next June election. It is required by law, and Ontarians deserve to know.

On Tuesday the government passed Bill 174. In attempting to comply with an arbitrarily-set federal deadline on cannabis legalization, the current government lumped unrelated amendments to road safety and flavoured tobacco products into the Bill. The Official Opposition demanded the bill be split into its relevant components, and the issues of cannabis retail, smoking and road safety be discussed at length on their merit. The government did not budge and thus did all of us a disservice.

Bill 160 also passed, affecting several dozen health statutes. It was crafted with little consultation with the medical community or with patients. In particular, Schedule 9 caused concern by repealing the Private Hospitals Act, which banned new private hospitals in Ontario. The government intends to force the existing private hospitals into a different regulatory framework, but were unable to adequately explain the legal mechanics of the plan to stakeholders, the public and their own members, who in Committee repeatedly called on their departments’ lawyers to answer our concerns.

Consequences of the college strike continued to reverberate, as we learned that 25,700 college students had to drop out after losing five weeks of classes. The longest college strike in Ontario’s history was brought upon us by a consistent failure by the government to fund post-secondary education properly. Instead of taking action to defuse the situation and avoid a lengthy strike, the government sat on its hands and let the colleges take the blame. In the meantime, 25,700 lives and careers are on hold because of political callousness. We can, and should do better by our future workers, leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

In the energy file, it transpired that the Ontario government awarded a half-million dollar bonus to the CEO of Ontario Power Generation in 2016. OPG had gamed the expenses system and, together with eight other generators, bilked the ratepayer to the tune of $260 million, had retired a year earlier. Rather than rewarding failure and bad practices, we should focus on those Ontarians and businesses who struggle to pay their electricity bills and desperately need some sensible energy policies to be implemented.

MPPs now return to their ridings until the middle of February, and I look forward to meeting many of you at numerous community events and in my office during the winter months. I take this opportunity to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.