The Political Balancing Acts of Bills 148 & 139

Art Sinclair

As the Ontario electorate moves incrementally to a June 2018 or earlier provincial vote, the incumbent Wynne administration is operating against conventional acumen and proposing major legislative changes which could, or could not, shift the results.

Public debate and media attention has been largely focused on Bill 148, the proposed changes to the provincial Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act. Within that portfolio, the dominant issue is the planned increases in the minimum wage over the next 18 months from the current $11.40 to $15 on January 1, 2019.

Public consultations by an all-party legislative standing committee heard wide ranging and serious concerns related to the capacity of employers, particularly small business, to absorb these additional costs. As our Chamber noted in a presentation in Kitchener to the committee on July 18, revenues for most businesses are not increasing at a level similar to expenses. The results could be fewer hours, layoffs and business closures which run counter to the stated intention of the legislation to create jobs. Also the potential exists for higher costs passed through to consumers across all sectors of the provincial economy.

Equally critical to the minimum wage increases are a series of legislative proposals related to collective bargaining through the Ontario Labour Relation Act. These measures did not originate from provincial employers and locally do nothing to address our on-going challenges with resepect to recruiting skilled talent from the global market.

Also, prior to the summer recess, Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro introduced Bill 139 which contains amendments to the provincial Planning Act and significantly impacts the operation of the Ontario Municipal board (OMB). Impacting the operation of the OMB could be a gross understatement. The Board as Ontario currently knows it will be gone if the legislation passes.

The province’s oldest administrative tribunal will be replaced by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. Generally, the proposed legislation will expand the authority of municipal councils to make final land use planning decisions. An analysis compiled by law firm Osler noted that while the proposed changes may advance the provincial government’s objective of increasing community control and resident participation in the planning process, builders and developers may be faced with some challenges where, regardless of the proponent’s efforts, a project faces local opposition.

Most significantly, as noted by Cassels Brock Lawyers, many of the changes proposed through Bill 139 will be implemented through regulation. While the legislation as currently drafted constitutes an extensive overhaul of the planning regime in Ontario, a complete understanding of the resulting impact cannot be determined until such regulations are released.

Many Waterloo Region stakeholders, including our Chamber, attended a public consultation session on OMB reform at the University of Guelph in late October of 2016. Staff from the Ministries of Municipal Affairs and Attorney General indicated the province was not proposing any significant changes to the current legislative and regulatory framework. The result, as demonstrated by the content of Bill 139, is significantly different than the plan from last year. The business sector across Ontario is confused and somewhat annoyed at the entire process and results.

Planning reform must balance environmental protection with economic and population growth. Similarly, labour and employment law most balance the interests of employers and employees. There is certainly a sense across the business sector that both balances have been weighted against them. The absence of any formal economic analysis on these proposed changes will expand the opposition.

In the final analysis Bills 139 and 148 represent a huge gamble by the Wynne administration. Traditional ideology in Canadian political strategy is to move on contentious issues early in the mandate and hopefully transition them off the public agenda when the next election cycle nears commencement. The final year before the vote generally includes large spending commitments to solidify core support.

Big risks for big rewards.