Members of Provincial Parliament and their staffs returned to Queen’s Park on Tuesday for the commencement of another legislative session, the last one before the Provincial Election, which is presently expected on June 2. For opposition parties and interest groups, it was a chance to talk about the challenges and issues still being caused by the pandemic, and for the Premier, it was a chance to just play politics.
On Tuesday morning, Doug Ford delivered on a matter that had previously just been the subject of a rumour, the elimination of licence plate renewal fees and the requirement to have a licence plate sticker for passenger vehicles, light-duty trucks, motorcycles and mopeds.
“As the cost of living continues to go up, our government is cutting costs for families to make life more affordable,” Ford said in a statement. “Eliminating the fee to renew your licence plate and refunding the cost of doing so for the past two years is a concrete way we can put and keep more money in the pockets of hard-working Ontarians.”
Ontarians will still have to renew their license plate every one to two years, but they will not have to pay the $120 fee for the privilege. They will have to have their insurance up-to-date and have their Highway #407 tolls paid off before the renewal can happen though. Plus, if you have paid to renew your plates since March 2020, you will be getting a refund from the Province in the form of a cheque in either March or April.
This news comes on top of an announcement on Friday that the government is permanently removing tolls on Highways #412 and #418, moves that are both widely seen as attempts to appeal to GTA voters just a few months before a spring election.
“Addressing climate change is how we make life more affordable — not removing license plate stickers that will cost taxpayers a billion dollars,” said Green Party leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in a statement. “Instead of blaming the carbon tax for skyrocketing gas prices, Doug Ford should make it more affordable and accessible to drive electric. That will help Ontarians save big at the pump by getting big oil out of our wallets as gas prices continue to soar.”
In terms of the cost, there have been previous reports from the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario that, if cancelled, the renewal fee could mean a loss of around $1 billion per year. At the media announcement, Ford said it’s no big deal because that billion dollars is going right back into the provincial economy.
“It’s everyone’s money. It’s not the government’s money,” Ford said. “We’re just putting that in back into your pocket and it’s about affordability. People have been hurt so much over this pandemic and that’s a billion dollars going back into the economy.”
Meanwhile, other political leaders were thinking about the hurt in different ways. Schreiner took to the media studio at Queen’s Park to announce his intention to put forward a motion to make mental health a component of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP).
“Mental health services in this province do not receive the funding necessary to provide timely, accessible and affordable care for the people of this province,” Schreiner said. “Here’s the bottom line: Mental health is health, and it’s about time we start treating it that way because everything is not okay in this province.”
Schreiner’s motion asks the house to declare that mental health is as important as physical health, and that the Government of Ontario should do everything possible to ensure that people can get the help that they need without breaking the bank. The Green Party leader didn’t think that his motion was that big of an ask in terms of getting support from the other parties, and the government.
“The government has indicated at times that they have a commitment to mental health and so here’s an opportunity for them to show that commitment by expanding coverage under OHIP,” Schreiner said. “I have high regard and a great deal of respect for the Associate Minister [Michael Tibollo], and I’m hoping that he and his colleagues will give this motion due consideration and support.”
Healthcare advocacy groups were also looking to use politicians’ return to the legislature as an opportunity to promote a cause, including the Ontario Hospital Association. The OHA wants the government to invest in hospital surge capacity as the Province aims to end most COVID restrictions, and that would include making all the additional beds and funding approved for the pandemic permanent.
“With the worst of the last wave behind us, now is the time to ensure the health care system is supported in a manner that meets the current and future health care needs of the people of Ontario,” said Anthony Dale, the OHA’s president. “The Government of Ontario has been a strong funding partner with hospitals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time for a dialogue about what’s needed to fundamentally strengthen our health care system into the future.”
Unions representing healthcare workers were also planning an event for Tuesday, the delivering of thousands of postcards signed by hospital workers from around Ontario. All those missives are urging the Ontario government to scrap Bill 124, which limits increases to pay and compensation for government workers, including people in healthcare, to just one per cent per year.
“This recent increase in workers contracting COVID-19 is putting an even greater strain on the health human resource crisis we’ve been urging the Ford government to address for months,” said Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare President Sharleen Stewart in a statement.
“Instead of temporary wage enhancements and one-time bonuses for select workers, which is creating division in our healthcare facilities, the Ontario government must repeal Bill 124 to give all health care workers access to wages that reflect their hard work and sacrifice and the mental health supports they desperately need after two years on the frontlines of COVID-19.”