Throne speech will unveil ambitious 5-year plan
TORONTO - Education, financial services, clean water and mining will form the basis of what the Liberals are calling an ambitious five-year plan to dig the province out of a record deficit that will be outlined in Ontario's throne speech Monday.
But the speech won't provide any specific details about possible plans to maximize government assets such as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario or Hydro One, despite speculation the government is looking at a range of options that include bundling several assets into a kind of super corporation and selling off shares.
"Our speech from the throne will focus on growing our economy," said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, who on Friday stressed no asset sales will be announced on Monday's speech or in the budget.
"Growing our economy requires that Ontario be open to change, open to new opportunities."
Premier Dalton McGuinty outlined some of those key priorities at a Liberal fundraiser last week, when he announced a plan called Open Ontario, described as not for "the faint of heart."
Open Ontario will focus on the growing global market for water technology, estimated at more than $450 billion, as well as work to make Toronto one of the world's elite financial centres and attract more foreign students to the province.
Sources say part of the clean water initiatives involves building a cluster of clean technology companies that can sell their ideas to the rest of the world, creating jobs in Ontario.
"It's about better conservation so not so much is wasted, which should be an advantage for families and business," a source said.
Another key goal will be to develop a huge chromite deposit in the northwest known as the Ring of Fire, something the government says will help northern residents.
McGuinty has expressed a lot of interest in developing the deposit, which has been the site of a blockade by angry First Nations residents who say they weren't properly consulted about the plans and who worry they will see no benefit from what should provide an economic boom in their area.
Anna Baggio of the Wildlands League says her group is concerned about the ad hoc way development has been proceeding in the area, with all kinds of companies fighting for a spot without an overarching plan that takes First Nations or the environment into account.
"Things were happening in a complete Wild West, a chaotic free-for-all," she said.
But McGuinty said no official announcement has been made about pushing ahead with mining at the Ring of Fire, and promised to tread carefully.
"Two things are certain: one is that it's a wonderful opportunity, and second is that we can't possibly move forward with it unless we engage in a genuine partnership with all the affected communities, including the First Nations," McGuinty said.
The government hasn't ruled out possible asset sales and is looking at options that range from privatization of Crown corporations to selling off transmission lines or leasing nuclear plants. But Duncan insists he won't rush into anything to pay off the province's record $24.7-billion deficit.
"I just don't want people to focus on this notion that we're going to take one of those big assets and just sell it," Duncan said.
Government officials wouldn't confirm any one specific plan, saying the Liberals haven't yet zeroed in on any particular option are still working through various ideas to determine the best way to use its significant assets to boost the economy.
They say that whatever the plan, government regulatory control will be absolutely essential.
"We're still a long way off from making any decisions," said one official.
Critics have said job losses are the biggest concern for people in Ontario and the government should use the budget to cut spending and provide tax relief to boost employment.
They have also warned against a fire-sale of valuable assets or leasing deals that take away the government's ability to control rates like in the case of Highway 407.
When it comes to the throne speech and budget, the Progressive Conservatives want to see selective tax relief, such as a tax holiday on the land transfer tax to increase construction of new homes, and a holiday on some payroll taxes like the employer health tax, to improve the jobs outlook.
They also want the government to cap program spending at the levels promised in the 2009 budget, and look at all ministries to see where costs can be reduced.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wants to see policies to deal with jobs, health care and education in the throne speech, but worries it will have the same "stand-pat" message as last week's federal budget.
"The throne speech is going to be pretty much the same as what we saw from the Conservatives, which is really not very much change at all, just moving ahead with the same old plan that we know hasn't worked," she said.