Ontario’s legislature is set to resume this week for the first time since Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives were re-elected, with politicians returning amid a healthcare staffing crisis and skyrocketing inflation.
Members will return Monday to vote for a Speaker, followed on Tuesday by the throne speech, which outlines a government’s new agenda and the budget, which is expected to be largely unchanged from when it was introduced but not passed in the spring before the election.
The premier is expected to acknowledge the health-care and economic pressures, but it’s unclear if any new measures will be added to the budget or throne speech to deal with them.
“The mainstays of the agenda are the same as they were before and during the election campaign, including rebuilding Ontario’s economy, getting more people into the skilled trades, and getting shovels in the ground to build more homes, roads, highways, transit and other key infrastructure,” a senior government source said.
“The government will also reiterate how it’s supporting the healthcare system, particularly in light of current pressures. That said, we are signalling that the context and climate in which that agenda is being implemented is shifting based on global economic trends.”
Since the June election, a nursing staff shortage has led hospitals to close emergency departments in communities across the province for hours or even days.
Nursing groups, hospital executives, other healthcare professionals and advocates have said that burnout after being on the COVID-19 front lines for more than two years and not being properly compensated have caused people to leave the profession in droves.
Health Minister Sylvia Jones sent a directive Thursday to the College of Nurses of Ontario directing it to make every effort to register internationally educated nurses “as expeditiously as possible” so they can practise in the province.
Opposition critics and nursing groups say the nursing college directive does not amount to the province doing everything possible to address the situation, as Ford recently promised.
A key demand they have is repealing Bill 124, legislation from 2019 that capped wage increases for public sector workers — including nurses — at one percent a year for three years. Nursing groups say some nurses could be enticed out of retirement if the bill was gone.
When the question period resumes Wednesday, the opposition parties are expected to press the government for solutions to the health staffing shortages, including repealing Bill 124, which they have long urged.
Interim NDP leader Peter Tabuns said Bill 124 symbolizes the Ford government’s attitude toward healthcare workers.
“I think that’s part of the problem we have with retention right now, as well as recruitment,” Tabuns said at a press conference Friday.
“(It is) a very clear signal from the provincial government that we will say all kinds of nice things about you, but in the end, we’re not willing to put dollars on the table to make life better for you.”
The Liberals will technically sit as independents again, as they failed to regain enough seats for official party status in the legislature. Still, interim leader John Fraser said their priorities would be the health system and affordability, including disability support payment rates.
“People can’t survive on what they’re getting,” Fraser said in an interview.
During the election campaign, Ford promised that he would increase those disability support payments by five percent, which is the only new measure he has indicated will be in the reintroduced budget.
Rates have been frozen since 2018, with a single person on ODSP receiving up to $1,169 monthly for basic needs and shelter. Advocates say that is far too low, and the payments should be doubled instead, especially given that inflation is around eight percent.
The first order of business for the legislature is electing a Speaker, and two Progressive Conservatives are expected to vie for the role. Ted Arnott, who served as Speaker for the past four years, is set to be up against Nina Tangri, who served as associate minister of small business and red tape reduction.
The vote is by secret ballot, but the Opposition NDP has indicated its members will vote for Arnott.
“He’s shown himself to be fair and unbiased in his dealings,” Tabuns said.
If Tangri is elected, she would be the first woman in the role, which Tabuns acknowledged would be a significant milestone but won’t change his vote.
“We think it would be good to have a woman as a Speaker, but perhaps another woman at another time,” he said.
The Tories — the deciding factor, with their sizable majority — have not said who their caucus members will support.