Hudak calls for public sector wage freeze to cut costs
TORONTO - The Opposition says job losses rocked Ontario like a "bomb" and the Liberals must work with the Tories to freeze public sector wages, rein in government spending and get the economy back on track.
The Liberals should not have blamed Ontario's loss of 75,000 jobs in October on last spring's tsunami in Japan or the debt problems in Greece, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Monday.
"We have made-in-Ontario problems," Hudak told reporters.
"Our energy rates are going far too high, too much red tape, high taxes that slow Ontario down."
With negotiations soon to begin with doctors and teachers, Hudak wants a wage freeze for the estimated one million workers in the province's broader public sector.
"We've got two worlds right now in Ontario -- the private sector shedding jobs and losing pay, and a public sector that's seeing three-to-four per cent (increases) a year and pensions they don't dream of in the private sector," he said.
The Liberals tried a voluntary, two-year wage freeze for the broader public sector, but without legislation it was ignored by arbitrators.
That led to some police and others getting pay hikes of three-to-four per cent, but the government said the public sector average was closer to a 1.5 per cent hike, below the private sector average.
"Once a wage freeze comes off, there's pressure to catch up," said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
"So it's not as simple as Mr. Hudak would have it."
The New Democrats poured cold water on the idea of a wage freeze for workers Monday, saying instead the province should cap the salaries of CEOs in the public sector.
"We've seen public sector wage freezes don't work, whether they're voluntary or mandated," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
The Ontario Medical Association said patient access to doctors and quality of care are ongoing concerns, but promised to keep the government's fiscal challenges in mind in its wage demand.
"We've got a history of working with the government, working with the needs of the system, in trying to present a reasonable request," said Dr. Stewart Kennedy, president of the OMA.
"We do realize as an organization that these fiscal challenges are definitely real, and we certainly have a responsibility to be aware of the fiscal challenges the ministry faces."
Economist Don Drummond, who is reviewing all public services in Ontario for the government, recommends the province cap spending increases at one per cent a year until 2017-18, when the $16-billion deficit will be eliminated.
Hudak, who wants a two per cent reduction in government spending in all areas except health and education, was not confident the Liberals can meet Drummond's one per cent target.
The Liberals held a "party on the backs of taxpayers" over the past eight years, and now the province is suffering a hangover, said Hudak.
"We need to reform the size and cost of government, and if (Premier) Dalton McGuinty's not up to the job, we'll force him to do it," he said.
With the Liberals reduced to a minority government, the Tories and NDP want to be consulted on the throne speech that will be read Nov. 22, outlining the priorities for the fall session of the legislature.
"It seems to me that the smart thing to do would be to sit down with the other leaders and have a high level conversation about the major goals to make the province a better place," said Horwath.
"It's disappointing that that's not happening because I think it would help them put together a throne speech that really shows productivity can be there with all three of us working in the same direction."
Duncan was dismissive of the request from the Tories and NDP to be involved in drafting the throne speech, but said they would be consulted.
"Yeah, it's called six days of debate in the legislature," he said.
"And remember, for the throne speech to pass, some of them have to vote for it."
The NDP also wants the government to offer some tax relief for families, likely in the form of HST exemptions or reductions, an idea McGuinty said last week Ontario cannot afford.