Christmas break set to start at Queen's Park
TORONTO - Politicians at the Ontario legislature wrapped up a tumultuous fall session Thursday that was marked by spending scandals, cabinet resignations, deepening economic troubles and an anti-tax protest that turned the chamber into a three-ring circus for nearly two days.
Despite the disruption, the governing Liberals accomplished their key goal -- passing a bill that will merge the eight per cent provincial sales tax with the five per cent federal GST next July -- over the noisy objections of the opposition parties.
Both the Conservatives and NDP pulled out all the stops over the last few weeks to oppose the harmonized sales tax, which they say will hit already struggling consumers with a massive tax hike.
The anti-HST crusade reached its zenith last week when a pair of maverick Tories, Bill Murdoch and Randy Hillier, staged a 44-hour sit-in to protest the lack of provincewide public hearings on the tax change. But it did little to delay the bill, which passed on Wednesday.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan remained unapologetic about the HST, emboldened by a September byelection victory for the Liberals that was widely touted as a referendum on the controversial tax harmonization plan.
"No doubt the economy has been top of mind for everyone," he said Thursday.
"I'm optimistic about the coming year. I think we're through the worst. I think we're still not out of the woods completely, but I think we've laid out the right plan."
But there will also be some "tough choices" in 2010 as the government charts a new and painful course to staunch the red ink ahead of the next spring budget.
Duncan's fall economic update forecast a $24.7-billion deficit this year -- the largest in Ontario's history -- and scrapped the government's plan to re-balance the books by 2015 as plummeting revenues and increased spending emptied its coffers.
The government's troubles were compounded by a second wave of the swine flu and a massive immunization program that saw hours-long lineups at clinics, a vaccine shortage and accusations of queue-jumping by professional athletes and hospital board members.
The Liberals also took a big hit in the fall from auditor general Jim McCarter, who released a scathing report into the province's $1-billion effort to create electronic health records that prompted the resignation of the health minister.
The October report found that the government's mismanaged eHealth efforts allowed consultants to run amok with little oversight while millions of dollars in untendered contracts went out the door.
David Caplan, who stepped down as health minister on the eve of the report's release, was soon joined by deputy premier George Smitherman, who left cabinet in November to pursue a bid to become Toronto's next mayor.
"Now with record deficits, record tax hikes, it's been a bad year (Premier) Dalton McGuinty and his Liberal cronies," said Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod.
"I think it's going to be a good year in 2010. So there's more to look for and I think we're going to be just as strong in the Opposition moving forward."
McGuinty is expected to shuffle his cabinet in the new year to find a permanent replacement for Smitherman, whose massive energy and infrastructure portfolio was temporarily assumed by veteran Liberal Gerry Phillips.
A spring byelection may also be on the horizon, once Smitherman vacates his downtown seat of Toronto Centre. Ex-Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray -- once considered a potential rival to Smitherman in the mayoral race -- is seeking the Liberal nomination with key Liberals backing his bid.
Smitherman gave his farewell speech Thursday, saying he plans to step down before the legislature returns on Feb. 16.
"As much as I am enthusiastic about the new pursuits I am to undertake in the new year, I'm saddened that the relationships I've made here will be renewed somewhat less frequently," he told the legislature.
"Yet I have noted that the mayor of Toronto does attend here -- sometimes even without cap in hand."
The fall session also saw the Liberals tick a few more items off their to-do list, from unveiling their long-promised plan to roll out full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-olds, to laying the groundwork for a cap-and-trade system to fight climate change and implementing a ban on using cellphones while driving.
The Vancouver Olympics will likely divert much of the public's attention from Queen's Park in the new year, but opposition parties say that won't stop them from turning up the heat over the HST and the government's mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.
After six years in power, the Liberals have lost their way, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"They're bringing in a harmonized sales tax that's going to make life a heck of lot less affordable when people are already struggling," she said.
"We see a government that's been plagued by scandals, where our precious health-care dollars have been wasted on things like eHealth with very little to show for it."