Questions about Premier Doug Ford’s relationship with developers and the expansion of private health-care delivery will dominate the return of the Ontario legislature today when it’s set to resume after its winter break.
The first order of business is expected to be a new piece of legislation containing promised health reforms. That will include allowing community clinics and diagnostic centres to perform more procedures and tests, letting health-care professionals from other provinces work in Ontario without registering right away, and allowing nurses and paramedics to expand their responsibilities.
“It’s a great plan,” Ford said last week of the upcoming legislation. “We’ve consulted with the sector over and over and over again. They believe it’s a great plan.”
The new legislation will expand cataract surgeries performed in private clinics and allow hip and knee replacements to be completed by private organizations. The province said it will introduce legislation that will protect hospitals from losing staff to these clinics.
The new plan is aimed at speeding up health-care delivery, but critics are concerned that it involves a larger role for the for-profit sector. While Ford has vowed the procedures and tests will still be publicly funded, the opposition parties have said it will open the door to private clinics pressuring patients to pay out of pocket for services above what the Ontario Health Insurance Plan covers.
“People are turning up at hospitals to find there’s not enough staff to help their loved ones,” newly minted NDP Leader Marit Stiles told her caucus last week when discussing their legislative priorities.
“Doug Ford is pushing down health-care worker wages at the same time and sending more money to private companies who are looking to turn a profit.”
Stiles, who on Tuesday will officially rise for the first time as NDP leader since being confirmed earlier this month, said she is also working on a new complaint to the integrity commissioner about Ford, developers and the removal of protected Greenbelt lands for housing.
Ford says he did nothing wrong when developers, who are family friends, attended his daughter’s stag-and-doe event last summer at $150 a ticket. Media reports cite sources as saying lobbying and government relations firms were asked to buy tickets.
The Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario said based on information provided, Ford had no knowledge of gifts given to his daughter and son-in-law and there was no discussion of government business at the summer event.
But Stiles said there are many questions that Ontarians still want answered.
“This premier continues to put the interests of wealthy developers first, even if that means tearing up and paving over our vital Greenbelt,” she said.
“We’re learning a lot in the last week or so about how that cosy relationship continues with these developers. It goes even beyond those closed-door meetings that we’ve become accustomed to and there is mounting evidence that things have really crossed a line.”
The integrity commissioner is already investigating another complaint from Stiles about the government and developers. She sought an investigation into Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark and what she calls “curious timing of recent purchases of Greenbelt land by powerful landowners with donor and political ties to the Ontario PC Party.”
Media reports say some developers bought that land over the past few years despite Clark and the premier previously publicly saying it wouldn’t be developed, with one purchase happening two months before Clark announced he’d open the lands up.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said his party would also be focusing on health care and Ford’s connections with developers.
“We’re going to work with other opposition parties, like we have, to get to the bottom of it,” Fraser said on the developer and Greenbelt controversies.
“The whole thing, it just smells…The premier’s too close to a whole bunch of people who really benefited from his decision to crack open the Greenbelt.”
The auditor general is also conducting a value-for-money audit of financial and environmental implications of the Greenbelt decision.
The leader — and only caucus member — of the third opposition party, the Greens, will also be the focus of some attention when the house resumes. Mike Schreiner has said he will “think about” a plea from a group of Liberals to seek the leadership of that party. Since saying last month he was considering their arguments, Schreiner has not given any indication which way he might be leaning.
The premier’s office says aside from the health legislation, the government will also be focusing on critical minerals and boosting the skilled trades.
The government is also set to deliver its budget soon, having promised to table it by March 31.
Ontario has recorded large improvements to deficit projections this year. The province’s third-quarter financial update, released last week, pegged the deficit for this fiscal year at $6.5 billion, more than $13 billion lower than its projection in last year’s budget.
But Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy has indicated the government doesn’t see that as additional spending room.
After unprecedented investments during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said last week it’s time to change course.
“Now is the time for governments to show restraint, to act cautiously and responsibly,” he said.