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Ontario’s business friendly agenda accelerates in the shadow of the pandemic.

May 6, 2020

Published in the Hamilton Spectator, May 19, 2020.

Reports emerged this week that the Ford government in Ontario is quietly setting up an online portal where businesses could ask for regulation or rule changes to help them weather the Covid-19 pandemic. The news seemed to confirmed what many observers have suspected has been going on behind the scenes during the Covid-19 crisis - that while media and public attention have been overwhelming focused on the pandemic and its impacts, and provincial legislatures remain suspended, intense behind-the-scenes lobbying  has been taking place on behalf of major economic interests.

There had already been questions about the role of business lobbyists in the production of the province’s initially lengthy list of “essential” economic activities. The list included a wide range of activities, like mineral prospecting, that seemed to have little to do with core public services and infrastructure, or health care and food supply chains.

There have been reports of similar intense lobbying at the federal level, particularly by the oil and gas industry. At the provincial level the Ford government in Ontario is particularly vulnerable to these kinds of pressures. Premier Ford’s personal performance through the crisis has been widely lauded as commendable, demonstrating a willingness to listen to and act on expert advice, show genuine empathy towards victims and health-care workers, taking a more precautionary approach to re-opening than some other premiers, and making personal interventions at critical points. At same time, his government’s operating model of never meeting a business lobbyist it didn’t love seems to be continuing.

The government, for example, has suspended the public notice and comment mechanisms for environmental decisions and approvals under the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights for the duration of the emergency. There was no evidence presented to suggest that the provisions were a barrier to the government’s responses to crisis. Were a problem to arise there are mechanisms to deal with emergency situations in relation to specific decisions in the legislation. Instead, a veil of secrecy has been installed behind which all manner of mischief unrelated to the pandemic may occur.

The province is also reported to be considering the use of Ministerial Zoning Orders, usually only used in exceptional circumstances, to override planning decisions and community appeals to the Land-use Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT), in favour of development interests and potentially high-impact infrastructure projects.

It has also been reported that the province is quietly moving forward with an ill-advised proposal to adopt self-regulatory models in areas, like building operations, overseen by the province’s public safety regulator, the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA). The authority’s approach to its regulatory functions was strongly criticized by the Provincial Auditor in her 2018 Annual Report. The use of similar self-regulatory models in areas like railway safety have been widely criticized in the aftermath of the Lac-Megantic disaster and recent increase in the numbers of railway accidents.

In the electricity sector, the province has moved ease hydro rates for certain classes of business consumers. That step is likely to exacerbate the nearly $6 billion/yr cost to the provincial treasury of keeping Hydro rates artificially low, and transfer more the ultimate costs of the arrangement to residential and small business consumers. Hydro One’s plans to continue to gobble up local hydro distribution companies, most recently in Peterborough and Orillia, have also been continuing quietly during the Covid-19 lockdown, The wisdom of such moves in a world where electricity systems are moving towards distributed rather than centralized utility models is at least worthy of public debate.

Many of these developments seem have little or nothing to do with the immediate impact of the pandemic or responses to it. The Covid-19 crisis has raised major, global scale, questions about viability of existing economic, business and regulatory models. Governments, including Ontario’s need to respond with caution to demands to double down on those pathways.

At the same time, the longer-term challenges facing the province and the world, like climate change, the sustainability of energy systems and growing inequality between rich and poor have not gone away. The province is no better positioned on these issues than it was before the pandemic struck.

It seems likely that the physical distancing measures related to the pandemic will need to continue for an extended period – likely until vastly more widespread testing and contact tracing systems are in place, and potentially until effective treatments and vaccines are available. The apparent extent of the back-door lobbying taking place under the cover of the pandemic makes it clear that some basic accountability and oversight structures on governmental activities need to be restored sooner rather than later.

The partial live and virtual reconvening of Parliament was a good move in the right direction, as was Toronto City Council’s first virtual meeting last week.  A similar return of the province’s legislature is well overdue.

More broadly, there is no shortage of issues that require attention: an effective climate change strategy; getting long-term energy costs under control; and income and job stability for the increasingly precarious workforces who have turned out to be critically important in maintaining food supplies, healthcare systems and physical infrastructures needed for societies to continue to function and respond to the pandemic. In the long-term care sector, the centre of the outbreak in Ontario, a nothing less than formal judicial inquiry and complete overhaul of staffing, funding, regulation and inspection practices is required. But decisions about the paths forward in these areas need to be made in the open, not behind doors closed by COVID-19.