The Ontario government has pledged to take “bold action” on health care in its new Throne Speech, but offered no specifics as the province’s hospitals reel from staffing shortages that have forced some to shut emergency rooms temporarily.
Tuesday’s speech, read in the legislature by Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, marks the return of MPPs to Queen’s Park after Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won a larger majority in the recent provincial election.
The government also reintroduced a revised version of its spring budget, which it did not pass before the June 2 vote. The document includes a new pandemic cash payment for parents and an increase in social-assistance rates for people with disabilities.
But it does not contain any additional action on health care beyond Ontario’s current long-term plans to spend $40-billion expanding hospitals over the next decade.
Mr. Ford has faced increasing pressure to take action as nursing and other staff shortages have strained the system amid another wave of COVID-19. Health care unions blame pandemic burnout and the government’s wage-hike-cap legislation for driving workers away.
The speech says the government will work with the health care system to find “urgent, actionable solutions” and “will implement whatever measures are needed to help ease immediate pressures, while also ensuring the province is ready to stay open during any winter surge.”
But it also says Ontario will “not be limited by conventional thinking that stifles innovation and preserves a status quo that struggles to respond to growing challenges and changing needs.” It adds that the government will look to other jurisdictions and “take bold action that prioritizes patients and their health above all else.”
The Ontario Nurses’ Association slammed the speech for offering no new prescription for health care and for failing to repeal Bill 124, which limits annual public-sector wage increases at 1 per cent. ONA president Cathryn Hoy said the legislation, which the union is challenging in court, “has sent nurses and health-care professionals out the door.”
The Throne Speech also reiterates the government’s plans to avoid lockdowns to deal with waves of COVID-19: “Ontario has the tools to manage the virus and live with the current variants for the long term, without returning to lockdowns.”
In addition to tabling the revised budget, the government also released its report on its first-quarter finances, which now say its deficit this year will be $1.1-billion lower than it projected in April, at $18.8-billion, thanks to higher-than-expected revenue.
The government’s original 2022-23 budget projected a deficit of $19.9-billion (including $1-billion in reserve funds, which would reduce the red ink if not spent). The deficit was up from last year’s $13.5-billion figure. The budget does not forecast balancing the books until 2027-28. Overall spending is projected to hit $198.6-billion in 2022-23, up from $181.3-billion the year before.
The revised budget includes a new provision to hand out $225-million over the next two years to parents across the province to help students “catch up” after learning disruptions during the pandemic. But the government could offer no other details about the plan on Tuesday.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the new payments would only divert funding to private tutors that could have gone into the public-education system to lower class sizes or hire education assistants.
“This seems to be diverting dollars we need in our public-education system out of public education where it can help the most children the most and into funding private services,” she said.
The province has previously in the pandemic offered per-child cash payments to parents dealing with school closings. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said more information would come out later in the year.
“We think it’s really important to help parents during this time of economic challenge and anything we can do to directly provide relief to parents in Ontario, we will,” Mr. Lecce said.
In addition to the cash earmarked for parents, the new budget includes a 5-per-cent increase to social assistance for people with disabilities, as well as indexing those benefits to inflation – moves that Mr. Ford pledged during the election.
Advocates and opposition critics said the increase to the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP, would still leave recipients struggling.
Opposition politicians also said the government should have rewritten its entire financial blueprint to reflect runaway inflation and to address the challenges facing the health care system.
“Since April, when this government tabled its budget, inflation has gone up and health care has gone down the tubes,” Opposition NDP interim leader Peter Tabuns said. “The government had a chance to table a new budget to deal with these crises. And Doug Ford chose not to.”
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy told reporters the government’s budget was “a prudent and flexible plan” with reserves and contingency funds to deal with the current economic uncertainty.
Asked if he could live on ODSP, which including the increase of $58 will still only offers a maximum monthly payment of about $1,200, Mr. Bethlenfalvy said the government has made other changes to help low-income people, including funding for supportive housing. But he left the door open for other moves.
“Can we always do more? Absolutely. That’s what we’re here in government to do,” he said.
The Throne Speech also touched on Mr. Ford’s previously announced plan to introduce “strong-mayor” powers, first in the municipalities of Toronto and Ottawa, saying this would help speed up housing construction and boost density along transit routes.
Mr. Ford has said these powers will include a veto authority for mayors that could only be overruled by a two-thirds vote of council. His Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, is set to unveil on Wednesday new legislation “to provide municipalities with additional tools to build more homes faster.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.