Ontario legislature resumes, omnibus bill to contain urban boundary changes

TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservative government introduced an omnibus bill Tuesday titled the Get It Done Act, borrowing from their 2022 election slogan, but opposition parties said the legislation will not actually accomplish much.

One part of the bill relates to undoing a previous policy, while two other sections purport to tie a future government's hands on carbon taxes and road tolls, though they could be easily undone themselves.

Transportation Minister Prabmeet Sarkaria introduced the bill Tuesday, on the legislature's first day in session since December.

"The Get It Done Act will allow Ontario to accelerate construction of transit, housing and infrastructure projects that we need to support our growing population," he said.

"This bill will also make life more affordable for families and businesses across the province."

The bill would "streamline" certain environmental assessments to allow the government to build infrastructure such as roads more quickly. It would also enable automatic licence plate renewals, a move that follows the government eliminating the fees for those renewals several years ago.

As well, the legislation includes changes to some urban boundaries that municipalities requested.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra last year reversed changes the government imposed on urban boundaries and municipal official plans, one of several policy reversals in his ministry after he assumed the post in September.

Some regions and municipalities had spoken out over the changes, saying the extra land wasn't needed to build more housing, so Calandra reversed those forced expansions and told municipalities to submit any changes they wanted to see.

Those municipally requested changes are reflected in Tuesday's bill, he said, and there are no changes for Hamilton and Ottawa, at the cities' request.

The two pieces of the omnibus legislation announced to the most fanfare last week are both politically charged items the opposition parties have dismissed as meaningless and performative.

One headline-grabbing item would require any future government to put any new provincial carbon pricing system to a referendum.

It would not affect the federal carbon tax and the legislation could be repealed by a future government. Ford spent time during the announcement in Mississauga, Ont., last week to attack the former mayor of that city, now Ontario Liberal Leader, Bonnie Crombie.

Another section of the legislation would ban new tolls on provincial highways, though no opposition party has proposed adding new tolls and a future government could simply undo the law or create an exemption.

The Ford government itself has no intention of introducing new tolls, having removed tolls on highways 412 and 418, nor is it removing tolls on Highway 407 East, the provincially owned portion of that highway. A Ministry of Transportation report in 2021 projected those tolls would be giving the province around $72 million in revenue in 2024-25.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the bill's title is a misnomer.

"This is a sign that the government is not actually getting anything done," Stiles said. "They’ve spent more time in the last year reversing course and they haven’t actually come up with practical solutions that will make life easier for people."

Crombie said letting municipalities decide the urban boundaries and official plans is the right move.

“We need the municipalities to lead on this,” the Liberal leader said. “We need the municipalities to let us know if they can accommodate their growth numbers within their municipal boundaries.”

She noted the government has consulted poorly with municipalities in the past.

The bill should be called “Get It Done Wrong Act,” said Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, who welcomed Aislinn Clancy to the legislature for her first day after winning the Kitchener-Centre byelection in late November.

“It's performative politics at its worst, distracting from the Ford government's failure in addressing the housing crisis and the fact that they've made access to health care worse,” Schreiner said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2024.

Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press