The (Hazy) Way Forward for Social Assistance Reform

James Elson

On February 19, 2013 the Honourable David C. Onley, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, delivered the “The Way Forward”, the government’s Speech from the Throne.  Following her win in the recent Ontario Liberal leadership convention (covered by a PPGR blogger here) Ontario’s premier, Kathleen Wynne, announced her government’s priorities, including the following:

  • Eliminating the deficit by 2017-18;
  • Introducing an even-handed approach to balancing the budget, allowing all parties to work together to find savings;
  • Focusing on employment opportunities for Ontario’s youth, in partnership with education, labour and private sector partners;
  • Ensuring municipalities and families have input on the location of energy infrastructure in their communities, while continuing to protect the environment and encourage conservation;
  • Ensuring a respectful partnership with labour leaders by building a sustainable process for wage negotiations through collective bargaining; and
  • Continuing to build the best education and health care systems in the world.

In October 2012 the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario released its final report (and 108 recommendations) on “Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario”, covered by your blogger here.   The post argued that although the reforms proposed in the report garnered support from a broad range of interests, the legislature’s prorogation put action and implementation of the report’s recommendations into doubt.

There is now some room for optimism.  Shortly after her leadership victory, Wynne announced the members of her “transition team”, including Frances Lankin, one of the report’s co-chairs.  The Speech from the Throne mentioned Ms. Lankin and her co-author by name under the heading of “A Fair Society”:

Following the recommendations of Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, your new government will work to help the unemployed find a job.

And to ensure that the challenging path they must navigate to free themselves from social assistance is not made unduly difficult, your government will enable them to keep more of what they earn through their hard work.

These are people whom all parties hope to empower, and your government encourages the legislature to work together on their behalf.

In addition, Premier Wynne has stated in the media that social assistance reform “is a priority of mine and it’s something that I hope both (opposition leaders) Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath would want to talk about because a lot of what is talked about in that report is making the system work better.”

Despite these facts, it is unclear what concrete action will be taken to move the recommendations from the review forward.  Given the minority status of the current government, the Speech from the Throne and the government’s upcoming budget must attract support from at least one of the other parties in the legislature.  As of the date of writing, the NDP had stated it would support the Speech, but would require concessions to support any upcoming budget, including:

  • Better home care for seniors, with a guarantee that it will be delivered five days after a request is made;
  • Reductions to auto insurance rates; and
  • A commitment to job creation, especially for young people.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the NDP “has no choice but to pull the plug on the new Ontario Liberal Government.”   If unable to pass a budget, the new government will be defeated and election will be called without the opportunity for the recommendations in the Review to be passed into law.  “The Way Forward”, at least for Social Assistance reform, isn’t as clear as it should be.

James Elson is a 2014 MPP candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  He is also a practising lawyer in commercial litigation and holds a degree in mechanical engineering.  James’ policy interests include science, technology and innovation, health, and education.

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