CANADA

Ontario’s ‘Bully Bill’

Critics attack the Tories’ omnibus legislation

TOM FENNELL January 15 1996
CANADA

Ontario’s ‘Bully Bill’

Critics attack the Tories’ omnibus legislation

TOM FENNELL January 15 1996

Ontario’s ‘Bully Bill’

CANADA

Critics attack the Tories’ omnibus legislation

Critics call it the “Bully Bill,” and Hazel McCallion, the mayor of Mississauga, Ont., cannot wait to use it In his drive to rein in Ontario’s deficit, Premier Mike Harris wants to consolidate more power not only in the offices of his cabinet ministers, but in city halls as well. To that end, he is pushing through Bill 26, a sweeping proposal to amend nearly 47 existing provincial laws. It would allow his government to bring down spending quickly by tearing up union contracts and closing hospitals and schools. The omnibus bill would even empower the government to regulate where doctors can practise and how many prescriptions they can hand out. Local governs ments, meanwhile, would be alg lowed to cover shortfalls in future | provincial funding by levying an 5 array of new service charges. McCallion, whose municipality lies just west of Toronto, is ready to act. “Great stuff,” the mayor told a legislative committee examining the bill. “This bill will remove the noose from around the necks of municipalities.”

Opposition parties, however, do not share McCallion’s enthusiasm. And the angry debate over Bill 26, which has been marred by politicians banging their desks and screaming at one another in the legislature, is expected to increase this week as the committee begins a series of hearings in 11 cities across the province. Harris wanted to push the bill, aptly named the Savings and Restructuring Act, through by Christmas. But the rebellion in the legislature in early December convinced the government to back down. The uprising started when Liberal MPP Alvin Curling, who had accused the government of lying, refused to leave the chamber when ordered to by Speaker AÍ McLean. Dozens of opposition MPPs surrounded Curling throughout the night to prevent the sergeant-at-arms from removing him, forcing the house into recess. Harris broke the impasse by agreeing to the hearings, which he hopes will lead to passage of the massive bill by the end of January.

The omnibus legislation is so sweeping, in fact, that it had to be split in half and reviewed by two separate committees. If passed, it will, among other things, allow the government to charge senior citizens and welfare recipients fees for prescription drugs and let municipalities impose new user fees—from collecting tolls to finance new roadways to increasing the amount of money people pay to use recreational facilities. Finance Minister Ernie Eves insists that the bill is essential if the government is to bring Ontario’s deficit, which is fore-

cast to reach $8.2 billion in 1996, under control. Acknowledged Eves: “Unusual measures are needed to deal with the debt problem.”

The all-embracing nature of Bill 26 led dozens of groups—from senior citizens’ organizations to environmentalists—to criticize it before the committee. Dr. Ian Warrack, president of the Ontario Medical Association, complained that the legislation will allow the province to control virtually every aspect of a doctor’s working life, and might even prevent him or her from relocating a practice. The bill

would also require government arbitrators to take into account taxpayers’ ability to finance public-sector wage increases during contract negotiations. Earl Manners, president of the 50,000-member Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said that such a move would amount to “political interference” in the bargaining process. Another group that opposes the biÜ, Pollution Probe, says that rather than dealing solely with the province’s financial situation, the legislation also contains ' some measures that appear to be designed more to aid the government’s business allies. For one thing, said Probe spokesman Bruce Lourie, it would alter the Ontario Mining Act to free mining companies from their obligation to clean up pollution. Added Lourie: “Bill 26 opens up an opportunity for unscrupulous mine operators.”

The debate has even raised the spectre of the government spying on its own citizens. According to Ontario Information and Privacy

commissioner Tom Wright, Bill 26 would amend the Protection of Privacy Act to give the government wider access to individual medical records. He added that the legislation could open the door to even more intrusive government snooping. In the future, he said, when electronic toll highways are introduced in the province, traffic may be monitored by computer chips in vehicles. Bill 26, he warned, could let the government use the technology to track individuals. “Law-abiding citizens,” said Wright, “could have their comings and goings monitored by government computer.” With criticism continuing to grow, both opposition parties say they hope to slow the implementation of the legislation by demanding that the government break the bill into pieces and extend the hearings. NDP house leader David Cooke said anger over Bill 26 has also reached the point where it could erode Harris’s continuing popularity with Ontario voters. “Every day, the hearings are showing the

Tories to be incompetent,” said Cooke.

Bill 26, however, is still supported by a wide variety of groups. Metropolitan Toronto Board of Trade vice-president Michael Lauber said that while the board is concerned about the possibility of new municipal taxes, bringing the provinces finances into line has to be the government’s top priority. And John Wright, senior vice-president of the polling firm Angus Reid Group Inc., said most Ontarians still support Harris’s determination to attack the deficit. In fact, a survey taken in mid-December and released last week shows that Harris still enjoyed the support of 53 per cent of Ontario residents, down slightly from 58 per cent in November. Harris, said Wright, is “the right man in the right place at the right time.” It is a perception that dozens of groups hope to shatter as they wrestle with the so-called Bully Bill.

TOM FENNELL