CANADA

The agenda for change

Ontario dissects the NDP’s first throne speech

PAUL KAIHLA December 3 1990
CANADA

The agenda for change

Ontario dissects the NDP’s first throne speech

PAUL KAIHLA December 3 1990

The agenda for change

Ontario dissects the NDP’s first throne speech

A few days before Ontario’s New Democrats presented the province’s first throne speech from a socialist government, Treasurer Floyd Laughren took a break from 14-hour days of preparatory meetings with cabinet colleagues to attend dinner at a friend’s home. There, the friend handed the 19-year veteran of the legislature and deputy premier a lighthearted gift: a T-shirt with the inscription “Pink Floyd,” the nickname Laughren’s two sons gave him a few years ago for his reputation as a left-wing idealogue.

But last week’s throne speech demonstrated that Laughren has tempered his socialist instincts to try to deal with the fiscal realities of the province’s $2.5-billion deficit and the recession.

He was among those who successfully argued against placing expensive campaign promises such as a $400-million development fund for northern Ontario in the speech. Said Laughren: “My role on this one was to bring to cabinet an antirecession package that was short-term—and those things don’t belong in it.”

Some aspects of the speech bore the hallmark of the NDP’s left-wing principles. Among the specific proposals: a $700-million public works program to improve sewers and roads in the province, an employee protection fund to provide compensation to workers who lose their jobs and severance pay because of business bankruptcies and a pledge to raise the $5.40 minimum hourly wage to more than $7.00.

As well, the speech brought forward such long-standing NDP commitments as an environmental bill of rights and public auto insurance, and slapped a moratorium on further development of nuclear energy. But the speech was also notable for what it did not contain.

Missing was a campaign pledge to build 20,000 units of affordable housing in each year of its mandate—and new funds for social assistance.

While the speech left labor leaders smiling, Opposition Leader Robert Nixon dismissed it as “long on principle, motherhood and apple pie.” More surprising, some traditional NDP constituent groups such as antipoverty and feminist organizations denounced it for ignoring their agendas. Still, party strategists said that before the current legislative session ends for the festive holidays, the government will make 37 announcements—many of them aimed at singleissue groups. Among them: wide-ranging nego-

tiations on native land claims and a plan to deal with the federal government’s abortion bill. “One of the tactics in the throne speech was to show that the government isn’t in the pocket of interest groups,” said one NDP consultant. “In reality, in the next three to four weeks there will be a whole raft of announcements, which

are directed very much to interest groups.” The throne speech foreshadowed other initiatives—such as a pledge to reform the provincial patronage system. To that end, the government is expected to unveil a new appointments system in December. Under the current arrangement, the premier has the discretion to make 5,000 appointments to gov-

ernment agencies, boards and commissions— in the past most often filled by party workers and supporters. But now, appointments director Carol Phillips, a former assistant to Canadian Auto Workers president Bob White, is preparing a plan under which the premier would submit lists of appointees to a legislative committee that would have the power to call any of the nominees to publicly explain their qualifications for a job. The committee would be chaired by an MPP from the opposition benches, but would have a majority of government members and no power to veto postings.

But in spite of the New Democrats’ efforts to reform patronage, party loyalists are expected to receive a good share of appointments. Rae has to fill about 1,400 positions, which are coming up for renewal in the next three months, and some New Democrat luminaries have already discussed possible postings with the premier’s office. Last week, NDP circles swirled with rumors that consultant Gerald Caplan would be named chairman of TVO, Ontario’s publicly funded educational television channel. At the same time, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis may become chief negotiator for the government when talks begin with Ontario aboriginal leaders next year on native self-government.

tí Lewis does indeed take on that task, he will find that much of the groundwork has already been laid. Charles (Bud) Wildman, minister responsible for native affairs, has already begun informal talks with the Chiefs of Ontario, an organization representing 130 Indian bands, to draft a statement of relationship between the government and native peoples. That document, which the chiefs hope to ratify at a meeting in Ottawa next week, would include the first recognition by a Canadian government of native peoples’ inherent right to selfgovernment and serve as a framework for negotiations.

When that is established, the native leaders plan to consult their bands for six months before bringing their demands to the bargaining table in the summer. Among the items likely to be on their agenda: proposals to re-create some of the historic Indian nations, I such as Ontario’s 60,000 Ojibway, I who were partitioned into dozens of 3 reservations across Northern Ontario I by treaties during the past 150 years. Said Chiefs of Ontario spokesman Gordon Peters: “Every effort has

been made to break our traditional

system of government down. We are talking about a re-joining of the first nations.”

At the same time, the two sides will work towards settling 165 land claims pending in Ontario and negotiate mineral and resource rights on treaty lands to provide the bands with a new source of income. This week, Wildman’s department was scheduled to announce joint

federal-provincial negotiations to settle such issues on the largest treaty area in the province—the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, which spans a 120,000-square-mile area around James Bay and Hudson Bay.

But in spite of the expected announcements, some NDP campaign promises will clearly have to wait. For one thing, pledges to introduce an inheritance tax, a land speculation tax and a minimum eight per cent tax on corporations will first be studied by a Fair Tax Commission. As well, housing ministry experts privately say that it will be impossible for the new government to fulfil its election promise to create 20,000 units of new social housing a year. The reason: a backlogged zoning approval system and internal estimates that the construction and subsidy costs would deplete the treasury by almost $1 billion annually after four years— which would more than double the present ministry budget. As a result, officials hope to reach half the number of promised units by initiating a modest construction program combined with the purchase of existing apartments for conversion into subsidized housing.

According to one ministry analyst, the cost of building an average two-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $140,000, while the cost of acquiring an existing building is $40,000 for the same unit. Even more promising for the Treasury: housing experts predict that rental buildings will drop in price after the government introduces tough new rent-control regulations. Said one ministry official: “Purchasing buildings does not expand the number of apartments by one unit, but it does create new social housing. There will be a lot of creative accounting.”

Rae has made consensus decision-making a rule for his cabinet, and disagreement among key ministers on the issue of constitutional reform has produced a stalemate. Shortly after his Sept. 6 election victory, Rae undertook to outline a commission to study Ontario’s constitutional future in the throne speech—but that did not happen last week. Using charts and slides, government experts gave a briefing to Rae, Laughren and their six colleagues in the inner cabinet two weeks ago. And they presented a two-phase plan under which Rae would appoint a commission to travel across the province to hear citizens’ views on Ontario’s economic and political place in Confederation. Then the commissioners would report to a legislative committee. “Rae is going to have to talk to the first ministers in a year or two about the shape of the country, and he will have had to consult his own electorate,” said one of the presenters.

But while Rae was apparently supportive of the plan, those arguments failed to convince Laughren. In the absence of a consensus, the plan is still being debated. Last week, the treasurer told Maclean’s: “People are using the term ‘constitutional fatigue.’ They are thinking, ‘Give us a break.’ I am nervous about forging ahead with a commission at this point.” It is just one more indication of the caution that “Pink Floyd” and his colleagues are bringing to their stewardship of Ontario’s political life.

PAUL KAIHLA