In mid-October, Dalton McGuinty did the unexpected. Facing mounting pressure from the Opposition over the latest political scandal, he prorogued the legislature and announced he was stepping down after only a year into his third straight term as premier.
McGuinty said suspending Parliament would allow the government to negotiate wage-freeze agreements with its public-sector workers and hold talks with the Opposition on those deals without the “heightened rancour of politics.”
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan had said, only hours earlier, that balancing the budget in 2017-18 depended on freezing those wages.
Experts say prorogation did nothing for the government except get McGuinty out of a jam after his minority government faced a second contempt motion over the cancellation of two GTA power plants that it says cost taxpayers at least $230 million. The Opposition says it was upwards of $1.3 billion.
“It has not advantaged him at all in negotiating with the teachers,” said Patrice Dutil, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. “The teachers are now on strike and the premier will be out the door without an agreement.”
Escalating teacher unrest
As students returned to school in September, the McGuinty government, with the help of the Progressive Conservatives, passed Bill 115 which imposes a two-year wage freeze on teachers, reduces benefits and bans strikes or lockouts.
The McGuinty government said the bill was necessary to rein in a $14.4 billion deficit while at the same time maintaining its full-day kindergarten program. It was also a precautionary measure in case the teachers unions and local boards couldn’t reach an agreement by the Dec. 31 deadline.
After Bill 115 passed on Sept. 11, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) urged members to “pause” their involvement in extracurricular activities, such as coaching sports and running after-school clubs, and to stop attending weekly admin meetings.
A month later, four unions representing teachers and educational support workers launched a legal challenge to fight the bill, arguing it was unconstitutional and violated workers’ rights. They demanded the government repeal the law.
Other boycotting measures ensued including a union directive for elementary teachers to only write the bare minimum on progress reports. Nothing seemed off limits. A Remembrance Day service at a school in Scarborough was cancelled when not enough teachers were willing to supervise the assembly preparations. Some schools even cancelled Christmas concerts as the labour dispute escalated.
In late November, ETFO president Sam Hammond said talks were at a standstill and that the next move would be to hit the picket lines in December. Parents were given 72 hours’ notice.
Education Minister Laurel Broten said she would allow the teachers their job action because they were only one-day strikes but threatened to use the powers in Bill 115 to end them if they went longer.
For two weeks beginning Dec. 10, elementary teachers held rotating strikes across the province. The biggest one – dubbed Super Tuesday – occurred on Dec. 18 when 35,000 teachers at three of Ontario’s largest boards picketed in Toronto, Peel and Durham, affecting some 328,000 students across the GTA.
Meanwhile, at the province’s high schools, students protested a work-to-rule campaign that cancelled all extracurricular activities. With the possibility of no sports and clubs for two years, about a 1,000 showed up at Queen’s Park for a protest on Dec. 13.
Dutil said the EFTO and OSSTF are two militant unions that have been playing hardball with the McGuinty government.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “Those two affiliates have dug in their heels. They don’t want to settle with any cutbacks.”
But he said they have a strong incentive to negotiate deals with the next Liberal premier because if an election is called it could go to the Tories.
The next premier
Seven politicians are vying to replace McGuinty as leader of the Liberal party. Former minister of training, colleges and universities Glen Murray was the first one to throw his name into the ring on Nov. 4. Former municipal affairs and housing minister Kathleen Wynne announced her bid a day later. Then Sandra Pupatello, a former Liberal cabinet minister who left politics a year ago for an executive job with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said she also wanted McGuinty’s job.
Other contenders included former minister of citizenship and immigration Charles Sousa, former education minister and federal MP Gerard Kennedy, former minister of children and youth services Eric Hoskins and former minister of government services Harinder Takhar.
“Sandra Pupatello has the best chance,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.
Every Liberal premier has come from outside of Toronto. Pupatello is from Windsor while the others are from downtown Toronto or Mississauga. She hasn’t been in politics for a while, which works in her favour, and more of the MPPs in the Liberal party support her than any other candidate, he said.
Both Wiseman and Dutil said Wynne is also a good candidate, although Dutil said the MPP leans more to the left and, as a former education minister, is viewed as too accommodating of teachers.
“I don’t think it’s the message the Liberals want to go with into an election,” Dutil said.
The party’s next leader will be chosen at a leadership convention in Toronto on Jan. 25-27.
But it’s highly unlikely anyone in the House will support the new Liberal leader. Dutil said Hudak will likely try to market himself as a new alternative, selling the idea that McGuinty’s replacement is a novice and so will many in the cabinet.
There’s also a possibility that the next Liberal premier will want to delay the reopening of the House. But that couldn’t go on for long since the government must present a budget by March or April.
“As soon as they produce a new budget they will be defeated,” Dutil said.