With its new speech from the throne, the Progressive Conservative government aims to hit the reset button, with a narrowed focus set on COVID-19 and long-term care for the final eight months of this government.
It outlined the stakes the province faces, and the approach the province intends to take to address those issues.
"The past 18 months have been some of the most difficult in modern life," said the speech, delivered by Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell from Queen's Park. "But the light at the end of the tunnel has never looked brighter," she added.
She highlighted the miracle of safe and effective vaccines, and urged the public to get vaccinated if they have not done so. The public encouragement highlights a significant challenge for Ontario to reach a threshold to ensure widespread public immunity. The so-called last mile problem has been difficult to tackle, with some people refusing to entertain getting the vaccine while others are skeptical but open to persuasion, or need easier opportunities to obtain it.
The speech outlined broad priorities and principles for the government as it starts its second session of the 42nd Parliament. The previous session was prorogued when the PC government made a tactical decision to keep its powder dry during the federal election that returned a Liberal minority government. The prorogation also resets the order paper, clearing the slate for priority legislation while other bills died on the vine.
The government used the speech to try to chart a Goldilocks approach to the pandemic. It vowed not to raise taxes or cut services as the province tries to emerge from the devastation wrought by the pandemic.
Afterwards, House Leader Paul Calandra added another priority for the government. "We have to build capacity in our health-care system," he said. The throne speech also vowed that a priority for the government was avoiding any future lockdowns, and ICU capacity is one of the first items that triggers such a drastic policy choice.
The throne speech promises also brought to mind previous Ford promises on spending. In December 2018 through Minister Vic Fedeli, it promised a "Goldilocks" approach to balancing the budget. This was followed by a budget that was widely condemned, seeing the premier booed at the Toronto Raptors championship rally and the finance minister unceremoniously sacked. And in 2010 when the premier acted as the campaign manager and a key figure in his late brother Rob Ford's mayoralty, the promise was "no service cuts, guaranteed." That vow was quickly broken as the administration went through a lengthy process to enact service cuts, which ultimately failed at council but saw approval tumble.
The opposition slammed the throne speech as a rehash of press conference talking points rather than offering a new vision for how to get out of the pandemic.
Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath called the speech "thin gruel" and questioned whether the premier's promises on not cutting funding can be believed. "Doug Ford can prove he actually means it by stopping the cuts," she said, referring to education funding and $5.6 billion in pandemic-related funding that went unspent.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called the speech "deeply, deeply disappointing for the people of Ontario," and referred to the province as a "laggard" on agreeing to a $10-a-day-daycare deal with the federal government, noting eight provinces and territories of all party stripes have done so.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner referred to it as "one of the most uninspiring throne speeches I've ever heard."
The speech also featured a shot at the federal government by highlighting a historic gripe: the lack of health transfers to provinces. "The original promise of medicare included 50-50 funding between the federal government and the provinces and territories for critical health services. Since then the federal government's share has eroded, to the point where the Canada Health Transfer now only funds an average of 22 per cent of total provincial health-care costs," the speech said.
And it stated that the provincial government has "never hesitated to spend what is necessary" in an attempt to reassure the public that it will "support you every step of the way." It's a message that's been repeatedly criticized by the opposition, claiming that the government doesn't have the facts on its side, given its track record on issues like paid sick days and recent reports from the Financial Accountability Office.
Other issues that were mentioned in the throne speech included long-term care, which you can read more about here, infrastructure, transit and Indigenous issues. But education and child care, which are high-profile issues right now, were not mentioned in the seven-page speech. Nor was there any French in the speech; the PC government has been routinely criticized for giving short shrift to Franco-Ontarian issues, concerns and representation.
Despite the best of intentions going forward, the PC government has played a considerable amount of political defence on COVID-19 thus far. Just this past weekend the government announced that Durham MPP Lindsey Park had been stripped of her parliamentary assistant title to the attorney general after she lied about her vaccination status. She has since obtained a medical exemption that has not been specified, and despite the falsehood about her vaccination status she remains in the PC caucus. You can read more about that here.
The throne speech was a more muted affair than previous iterations. While Dowdeswell was introduced with customary fanfare and the red carpet was literally rolled out, the COVID-19 restrictions meant a less celebratory atmosphere than usual. That meant that the public galleries were not packed and the usual special guests invited from the government — Ford friend and controversial preacher Charles McVety was at the last one — were absent. About half of the MPPs were in attendance, and wore masks.
Newly independent MPP Rick Nicholls, who refuses to be vaccinated, was not in attendance. Nicholls was booted from the PC caucus following reporting on the vaccination status of MPPs by QP Briefing. The government also confirmed, following a question from QP Briefing, that he will be stripped of his title as deputy speaker. You can read more about that here.
Other MPPs not in attendance included Randy Hillier, who tweeted over the weekend that people entering Queen's Park today deserve "both a tar & feathering." No one was tarred and feathered entering Queen's Park on Monday despite the MPP's call.
Independent MPP Roman Baber was also not in attendance, although Belinda Karahalios was. Individuals must provide proof of vaccination or a recently passed PCR test in order to enter Queen's Park.