The circus is back in town, but there’s no clowning around.
MPPs returned to Queen’s Park on Monday after a 144-day recess and they appear to be taking a cue from Speaker Ted Arnott’s appeal for better behaviour in the legislature.
Premier Doug Ford’s call in the Star for a “new tone” in the divisive chamber clearly resonated with Progressive Conservative MPPs, who restricted themselves to one restrained standing ovation and no heckling or jeering.
That was a contrast to the cacophonous free-for-all in the legislative assembly when MPPs last met June 6 — even as protesters on the backs of flatbed trucks and on foot repeatedly circled the building Monday, rallying loudly against Ford over everything from education funding to climate change.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath took aim at Ford for an extended break that was designed, but failed, to help Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in Ontario by keeping the provincial Tories out of the news.
“The premier spent most of the past five months either hiding or in damage control,” she said, insisting the Tories “undo the political damage caused by their reckless cuts” to education.
Horwath also urged Ford to take heed of Ontario voters’ decision in last Monday’s federal election and abandon his “obscene” $30 million legal challenge to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon-pricing plan.
“Two out of three Ontarians rejected the Doug Ford government and their climate-change denial,” she said.
“They said no to diverting $30 million from schools, hospitals, et cetera, to pay for lawyers and advertisements. They said no to threatening gas stations with $10,000 fines if they refused to put partisan stickers on the gas pumps that don’t stick.”
While Ford had suggested in August that he might give up the fight if federal voters supported the measure, he now insists it’s full-steam ahead with the court challenge.
“We ran on making life more affordable for the people of Ontario. We didn’t run on increasing gas prices by 35 cents a litre. It’s unaffordable. We didn’t run on making the carbon tax that will cost families another $700 more a year,” he said.
The apparent change in tone from the Ford government is meaningless if the premier sticks with the federal carbon tax court challenge, said interim Liberal leader John Fraser.
“He killed a plan for climate change and he’s trying to kill another one,” Fraser told reporters, referring to the previous Liberal government’s cap-and-trade program to fight greenhouse gases.
“The change in tone is welcome but what needs to happen is a change in priorities.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner was skeptical when asked how long the “more respectful tone” from the Ford government will last.
“For one day the pom-pom squad has been put in the cage so we’ll see what happens,” he added, also taking aim at the carbon tax court challenge.
“It’s a complete contradiction for the premier to say ‘we’re going to change the tone and have better relations with the federal government’ and continue with a political motivated lawsuit against the federal government sabotaging climate solutions and raising taxes on Ontarians. It makes no sense to me.”
Independent MPP Amanda Simard (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell), who quit the Tories in protest of former finance minister Vic Fedeli’s cuts to French-language services in last November’s fall economic statement, praised new Finance Minister Rod Phillips.
“An excellent choice, given his experience and credentials,” she said before hammering Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, who is responsible for francophone affairs, for not reinstating the French-language rights commissioner.
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Simard demanded to know “what were the savings” from eliminating the independent French watchdog, who will now serve under the Ontario Ombudsman.
“Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé confirmed last spring that the commissioner will have the same mandate and resources to continue to promote language rights, relationship building and identification of the problems it faces, the francophone community,” said Mulroney.
Speaking to reporters, she insisted the office “wasn’t killed, it was transferred.”