Premier Doug Ford has been backing down on some of the Progressive Conservatives’ most controversial moves to clear the political debris blocking his government’s way forward.
From cancelling planned welfare cuts for vulnerable children and abandoning regional government reform to retreating on the Toronto subway upload, the Tories are putting problems behind them as they look toward Wednesday’s fall economic statement.
With an inclusive theme of “building Ontario together,” Finance Minister Rod Phillips’ fiscal update is a reset button for an administration after a shaky first 16 months in office.
“I just believe in working with people. If we don’t get it right 1,000 per cent of the time, then we’re going to work with the groups to make sure we get it right,” Ford told reporters on Monday.
“And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sitting back, listening and making a decision.”
To that end, in recent weeks the Tories have:
- Scrapped plans to take ownership of the TTC’s subway system, in exchange for city council approving Ford’s proposed 15.5 km Ontario Line from the Ontario Science Centre in Don Mills to the Exhibition GO station.
- Given up on sweeping reforms to regional government, which could have seen Brampton forced to merge with Caledon and Mississauga secede from Peel Region.
- Reversed a decision to allow promotion and advertising of vaping products in convenience stores and gas stations, amid concern about an epidemic in vaping by teens and potentially dangerous health impacts. A promotion ban that the previous Liberal government had slated for July 2018 will now take effect in January.
- Axed the planned cutting of the $67 million Transition Children Benefit, which gives up to $230 a month to low-income families of 32,000 kids not receiving the Ontario or Canada Child Benefit.
- Moved away from its original “childhood budget” plan with age and income cut-offs for children with autism. The new system will be based on need, although some limits will still be in place. The government has also doubled its initial $300-million investment to $600 million.
- Watered down an initial plan to boost secondary class sizes from an average of 22 students to 28 over the next four years. In the most recent offer to the public teachers’ union, the Tories have now proposed an average of 25.
- Revamped the public-appointments process after being rocked by the “French connections” cronyism scandal that led to Ford parting ways with former chief of staff Dean French.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the Tories’ “are trying to scramble away from the wreckage that they’ve caused with all of their cuts.”
“They put the education system into chaos, they put families with children with autism into chaos, they put municipalities into chaos. They’ve created a lot of damage and I guess one by one they’re starting to try to distance themselves from the mess that they’ve created on their own,” said Horwath.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser predicted more backtracking from a government that “just turned everything upside down and … had no plan going forward.”
“Ontarians are saying ‘your priorities are out-of-whack with mine,” he added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the government climbed down on class sizes. They’ve kind of come half way.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said “it’s clear that the premier’s ‘cut first, think later’ approach to government is not working.”
“If he’s going to climb down, why doesn’t he climb down on things like stop wasting our money on … fighting climate solutions,” he said of Ford’s $30-million court challenge of federal carbon-pricing measures.
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Ford, who in August said he would “respect democracy” with regard to the results in the Oct. 21 federal election, reiterated Monday there will be no backtracking on that legal fight, despite the fact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won 79 of 121 seats in Ontario.
“I ran on making life more affordable for the people here in Ontario,” he told a news conference at GO Transit’s maintenance facility in south Etobicoke.
The premier twice evaded questions on the rationale for backtracking on regional government reforms. That decision came after his government forced Toronto city council to downsize by almost half during last year’s municipal vote, and cancelled the first elections for regional chairs in Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka.
“We’re taking the approach we should leave this up to the towns and the cities,” he said. “No one understands communities better than local representatives.”