Why visions of teachers and Andrew Scheer will be dancing in Tory heads over the holidays 

OPINION: The legislature recessed Thursday and isn’t supposed to be back until February — but the Ontario government has taught us to expect the unexpected
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 13, 2019
Premier Doug Ford attends a portrait-unveiling ceremony for former premier Kathleen Wynne at Queen’s Park on December 9. (Chris Young/CP)

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MPPs wrapped up their work at Queen’s Park for the year on Thursday afternoon, and they’re not expected to return until February 2020. Expectations, however, haven’t always been fulfilled during Doug Ford’s tenure as leader of the Progressive Conservatives and as premier. This year started with a bang: the government found itself embroiled in a patronage scandal after Ford attempted to appoint his family friend Ron Taverner as head of the Ontario Provincial Police, and that snowballed into a larger patronage scandal when it turned out that the premier’s office had appointed former lacrosse players and young Tories to six-figure plum positions.

So we may want to expect the unexpected. Although, normally, we wouldn’t see MPPs in the chamber again until after Family Day, there’s one big issue on the horizon that could mean everyone gets called back early (the same issue the government has been staring down the barrel of all year): negotiations with the province’s four biggest teachers’ unions. Things got more complicated on Thursday when those four unions announced a Charter challenge to Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, which caps public-sector compensation growth at 1 per cent annually.

(TVO, as part of the provincial public sector, is also bound by the conditions of Bill 124.)

The government wants to hold teachers’ unions to a 1 per cent compensation increase and says that, if all the big unions were to echo the demands of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation — and the government were to accede to those demands — it would cost the province $7 billion over three years. How you see that figure depends on where you stand: from the government’s perspective, that’s a substantial dent in their plan to balance the budget deficit. But it’s also a relatively small slice of the roughly $500 billion the government is projected to spend over three years.

The fate of Bill 124 is far from clear: a number of court decisions, including at the Supreme Court of Canada, have upheld the right of unions to bargain collectively as an extension of Section 2 of the Charter, which guarantees the right to assembly and free association. During the last Liberal government, a court threw out Dalton McGuinty’s Bill 115, which froze teacher pay and banned strikes. Bill 124 may face the same fate.

One big difference, however, is the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, which could let the government save a law like Bill 124 even if a court ruled it unconstitutional — and Ford has already proven that he’s willing to use the notwithstanding clause to abrogate Section 2 Charter rights. His government’s introduction of Bill 31, the Efficient Local Government Act, marked its second attempt to cut Toronto city council in half (after its Bill 5 was, briefly, found to be unconstitutional). The government successfully fought to have the court decision stayed, and so Bill 31 became redundant, but the government’s willingness to use the constitutional nuclear option is a matter of record.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, addressed the topic on Thursday, saying, “That’s a possibility, but I think we’re focused on these challenges, getting them filed and turning it over to our legal teams. If it happens, we’ll deal with it at that time.”

Also on Thursday, Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy — the man responsible for watching the nickels and dimes of government, and for Bill 124 — refused to say whether the notwithstanding clause was off the table or not.

“That’s not a priority for us; it’s a hypothetical and I’m not going to speculate on that,” Bethlenfalvy told reporters at Queen’s Park. “I’m not going to engage in public negotiations best left to the minister at the table.”

And if the government doesn’t resort to the ultimate legislative option, there are other, less constitutionally fraught, possibilities. If negotiations with teachers truly break down, MPPs could be called back to Queen’s Park to legislate striking teachers back to work. The government would obviously like to avoid both a strike and back-to-work legislation (the latter would send the entire dispute over compensation to an arbitration process whose outcome the government can’t control or predict).

Negotiations with OSSTF are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday next week, and the government or the unions may yet budge and avert further labour disruptions. By the time 2020 rolls around, the government will have only the rest of the political world to worry: a provincial Liberal party trying to pull itself out of purgatory by picking a new leader (and, they hope, by winning two byelections in seats vacated by Liberal MPPs earlier this year) and a global economy that could cool down, making deficit-fighting even harder.

Then there’s perhaps the most interesting wild card of all: Andrew Scheer on Thursday announced that he’s resigning as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and it’s just possible that some provincial Tories have dreams of replacing him. Scheer’s resignation creates an opportunity for ambitious Tories of all kinds — and the current premier is no stranger to ambition. While Ford’s office indicated yesterday that the premier “is focused on Ontario,” it might not be up to him: Ford is still personally unpopular. According to a new poll from DART Insight, he’s the least popular premier in Canada — 50 per cent of those surveyed say that they “strongly disapprove” of his job performance. If “kindler, gentler” Ford was supposed to resuscitate the government’s standing in the polls, there’s little evidence of that so far.

Nevertheless, other members of Ford’s caucus may see prime-minister material when they look in the mirror every morning, and think that they’ll be able to escape the shadow of their time in his service.

Happy holidays, then, to Ontario’s members of provincial parliament. We’ll see all — or at least most — of you next year.

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