The seven New Democrat cabinet ministers, along with their deputies and several advisers, had eaten only about half of the fresh fruit and croissants provided for their early-morning meeting. But after two hours of discussion, under a long-standing routine, the Queen’s Park caterers replaced the still-laden platters with fresh ones at coffee-break time. One minister took exception to the culinary bounty. Retrieving several unfinished trays from a cart outside the room, he dumped them on the massive oak conference table and angrily lectured his startled colleagues about wasting food at taxpayers’ expense. Shot back a clearly irritated committee chairman: “I’ve been here since morning—and I’m hungry.” The heated exchange quickly blew over. But for those present, it exemplified the points of friction that Ontario’s first NDP administration is experiencing as it strives to apply its reformist principles to the reality of governing.
Resistant: In more important ways, the provincial ship of state has proven more resistant to change than members of Premier Bob Rae’s eight-month-old NDP government initially expected. Rae’s government, in fact, is encountering an array of unanticipated problems, including a slump in provincial revenues, a string of minor scandals surrounding the conduct of cabinet ministers that has distracted the government’s inner circle, and mounting pressures from an assortment of special-interest groups. At least one of the party’s most cherished reforms—an environmental bill of rights—has stalled because of opposition from provincial bureaucrats. And proposals to strengthen radically the hand of unions by amending the provincial labor code have prompted outrage from the business community. Declared Gordon Floyd, president of the government-relations consulting firm Public Affairs Management: “The Raè government is like the Carter administration in the United States. It is made up of outsiders who are trying to come in and run the government with an opposition mentality.”
The pressures bearing down on the government intensified last week after provincial Treasurer Floyd Laughren presented his maiden budget. It provoked attacks from the political right on the ground that it was too extravagant, and from the left for the opposite reason. Laughren estimated that his $52.8-billion
spending plan will exceed revenue by an unprecedented $9.7 billion, up from $3 billion in the previous fiscal year. Critics said that would saddle the province with too much debt, discourage investment and encourage a continued exodus of businesses to the United States. Despite tax breaks for the poor and increased spending on welfare and health care, the budget also came under fire from anti-poverty activists for not providing enough help. For his part, Laughren defended his spending program as a recession-fighting package that would create—or save—70,000 jobs. But at least one backbench New Democratic MPP privately acknowledged that the budget did not go far enough in advancing promised reforms.
The premier, meanwhile, found himself distracted from the broader political front last
week by the latest in a string of controversies involving his cabinet. After firing one minister in March and accepting the resignation of another last month, Rae rejected opposition calls for the ouster of Community and Social Services Minister Zanana Akande. On May 1, the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner reported that the 54-year-old former school principal had technically broken the law by failing to follow the correct procedure in resigning two company directorships. But Rae, noting that Akande’s breach was inadvertent, confirmed her in her role as manager of the second-largest ministry in the government. For his part, Laughren appeared to antici-
pate the flurry of criticism
directed at his budget. The
minister, a former economics teacher, said that the federal government’s squeeze on payments to the provinces for social programs will cost Ontario $1.6 billion this fiscal year. And with declining revenues from Ontario’s recession-strapped businesses, simply to maintain existing programs would have produced an $8.2-billion deficit. As it was, Laughren delivered $2 billion in new spending commitments.
Laughren partly offset the new spending with $670 million in additional taxes, including an increase of 42 cents for a large package of cigarettes, a surtax of up to $7,000 on the purchase price of big cars and an increase in the surtax on personal incomes above $84,000 a year. Still, several NDP promises fell victim to the recession. Some critics charged that the government’s increase in welfare funding fell short of promises made during last year’s election campaign. Said Toronto anti-poverty activist Michael Shapcott: “This budget shows that the NDP has thrown their entire election platform out the window.”
Targets: The budget also failed to meet party targets for social housing. It did state that
35.000 units of subsidized housing will be “under development” by year’s end, with another 10,000 units to come later. But housing ministry officials acknowledged that all the units expected to be developed this year were in fact started by the previous Liberal government—and fewer than half will actually be under construction by the end of the year. As well, Laughren’s undertaking to create a further 10,000 new nonprofit apartments will take two years to complete—and falls far short of the party’s campaign promise to build
20.000 new units in each year of its mandate.
Other cherished NDP goals were not even
mentioned in the budget. Chief among them was a promise in the party’s 1990 campaign platform to introduce a so-called environmental bill of rights guaranteeing every citizen’s “right to a healthy environment.” As former NDP environment critic, MPP Ruth Grier drafted such a document and, when Rae appointed her minister of the environment last October, party strategists expressed confidence that it would be introduced as legislation within weeks. But ministry insiders say that department officials have waged a successful battle since then to stall the bill, motivated largely by concerns that it would invite a flood of litigation challenging department decisions. Observed consultant Floyd:
“Bureaucrats who are charged with making judgments under the legislation are not that keen about spending large parts of their lives in court defending those judgments.”
Low-key: While Grier’s fight to defend her charter of environmental rights has so far been low-key, other battles awaiting the Rae government promise to be much more public. None are likely to be more bitterly fought than proposals before Labor Minister Robert Mackenzie—a former organizer for the United Steelworkers of America—to overhaul Ontario’s labor laws. In March, Mackenzie appointed a committee of organized labor and business representatives
to propose a number of reforms. But the two groups failed to agree and instead presented separate reports. And labor officials told Maclean ’s that the NDP minister is intent on adopting the version turned in by the labor members almost intact. Among its suggestions: streamlining the certification process for new unions,
making it illegal for companies to hire temporary labor during strikes and preventing management personnel from filling the positions of striking workers.
The proposals created a shocked reaction in the business community. Corporate critics claim that their impact would go far beyond business, extending to shutting down vital services during labor disputes. Said David Surplis,
president of the 40,000-member Council of Ontario Construction Associations: “These proposals are horrendous. They would create chaos. Could you imagine a strike at a utility or nuclear plant? There would be whole cities without power.” Last week, Surplis’s organization joined several other powerful business groups, including various chambers of commerce, the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the Mining Association of Canada and the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, in talks aimed at derailing the proposals.
Stalled: With its reform agenda already stalled on several other fronts and its first budget under attack, Rae’s NDP government now faces an additional battle. And at least one New Democrat predicted last week that Rae I would eventually retreat I from the controversial labor u reforms. “Given Bob’s cauls tion,” the NDP MPP acknowl° edged, “Mackenzie will have a hard time getting that stuff by cabinet and the premier’s office. The trouble is, we have to deliver to our labor supporters.” For a party that swept into power on a wave of euphoria, it was a sobering reminder of the perils—and price tag—of attempting to translate political ideals into political practice.
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