Economy to dominate when legislature resumes
TORONTO - The slowing economy, job losses and the provincial budget will dominate the Ontario legislature's agenda when it resumes sitting Monday for the first time since the Christmas break, with the Liberals under fire from both the opposition and the federal government for their economic policies.
The session will see the government introduce legislation to ban adults from smoking in cars with children, and to increase penalties for animal abusers while imposing strict new rules on roadside zoos.
A bill banning the cosmetic use of pesticides and another that would see the government share provincial surpluses with municipalities for roads, bridges and public transit are also in the offing.
"The government will have a very, very ambitious agenda to continue to make sure that Ontario's economy is productive,'' said Deputy Premier George Smitherman.
"At the heart of our government's agenda is the belief that it's our obligation to provide a strong economy by having a well-trained workforce and an infrastructure that works.''
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan's March 25 budget will include plans to invest in hospitals, schools and skills training, sources said. Still, there's little sign of what the government plans to do about Premier Dalton McGuinty's declared second-term priorities to address poverty and help aboriginal people.
A cabinet committee is studying the poverty issue and will develop a "focused comprehensive strategy by the year end'' with real reduction targets, said one Liberal spokesperson.
But NDP Leader Howard Hampton said statistics show the situation is only getting worse in Ontario, and the Liberal government should have already set a firm target for reducing poverty.
"The McGuinty government made a lot of promises, before the election and during the election, that they were going to fight poverty,'' said Hampton.
"Well, it's now five-and-a-half months after the election, and basically zilch has happened. In fact, the only thing we hear is the government wants to study the problem. The time for study is over.''
Both the Conservatives and New Democrats plan to focus on the loss of 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the past four years, with the Tories demanding corporate tax cuts to attract investment while the NDP want a manufacturers' tax credit and a buy Ontario policy for public transit projects.
"I'm not expecting much from the government. We had an election almost six months ago and we've done almost nothing since that time,'' said Conservative Leader John Tory.
The legislature has sat only two weeks in the past nine months. That brief session came last December after members took time out for the October election, in which McGuinty became the first Liberal leader to win back-to-back majorities in Ontario in 70 years.
"We are going to be relentlessly focused on the economy and the fact that Ontario has fallen behind,'' said Tory.
"Ontario is out of step with the rest of the country and I don't think this government gets it in terms of what has to be done to attract investment and economic activity here again.''
Smitherman said the Conservatives' attacks were muted "by the fact that as a party they've been incoherent on the issues of investment in a healthy infrastructure'' in the province.
"Ontario has made very strategic investments to ensure we have a dynamic auto industry, and those have been opposed by the Conservatives.''
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who once held the same post in Ontario, has been engaged in a nasty war of words with McGuinty over the province's corporate tax rates, and wrote an editorial Friday making specific suggestions about what should be in the provincial budget.
The Liberals say they've already committed to eliminating the capital tax on businesses. Duncan's budget will likely fire back at Flaherty by again demanding the federal government match special provincial funds that give direct help to manufacturers.
The legislature will begin proceedings Monday afternoon with Speaker Steve Peters reading the Lord's Prayer, but McGuinty has proposed a committee be struck during this session to look at whether or not that is still appropriate in multicultural Ontario.
The premier admitted his mother "gave him hell'' for proposing to change the use of the prayer in the legislature.