Ottawa/Queen's Park




-by Bill Walker, MPP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound

The year 2015 kicked off with less optimism than expected as the Liberal government was buffeted by growing labour unrest, OPP investigations and ever-increasing hydro rates.

By late January, care coordinators at ten of the 14 Community Care Access Centres (CCACs) across Ontario had gone on strike, including those in Bruce and Grey counties. It was troubling to see this government allow itself to rack up a behemoth $12.5-billion deficit and then force a squeeze on the health care services and programs. At the close of 2015, health care remains on uneasy terms with the government with the lay-offs of 1,700 nurses, hundreds of hospital bed closures around the province, and the axing of medical residency spaces at a time when 800,000 Ontarians continue to go without access to a family doctor.

As someone who holds public health care near and dear to my heart, I find the ongoing fight between the government and our health care professionals very troubling. Where was the government's wherewithalwhen they chose to waste $1.1 billion to cancel two gas plants, to waste $1 billion on an eHealth system that is still not in operation, and to waste nearly $2 billion on smart meters that failed to conserve energy and reduce energy bills? It is these wasteful costs that have syphoned billions out of frontline services and put the care of the people we serve in jeopardy.

In February, my colleague and Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson and I went to bat with the Ministry of Health to keep the Restorative Care Unit (RCU) program open in Chesley. We saw first-hand how rehabilitative services were helping to improve patient outcomes every day at the RCU, providing care to almost 300 patients, mostly senior citizens. We needed the RCU to stay open and challenged the Minister to support it as part of his own plan to help patients transition into home care. It was a long battle, but in the end, our advocacy was successful and we were pleased to bring home the good news that care would be available in Chesley, Hanover and Owen Sound hospitals.

By late February, we were facing another battle, this one involving our local schools. I have always said that I would fight for local schools, and so when the government announced its plan to speed up school closures in across Ontario communities, I immediately stood up for local parents and students. I actually found it galling that a government that has for years prided itself as the education-friendly party was now blindsiding all of us with new Accommodation Review rules. The Liberal government's new guidelines essentially fast-tracked school closures by shortening the public consultation period to just 10 weeks from the current seven months.

They also stripped out the 'community impact' component of the review, took away the voice of the people who would be impacted by school closures and thus removed a key asset in their ability to provide a rationale for the value of the school and the need for it to remain in their community. We don't need rogue policies such as the new ARC guidelines. What we need are meaningful changes in the education system and a funding formula that will ensure quality education services and sustainability of our communities.

The return of the legislature in mid-February was marked by yet another spending scandal – this one involving the province's welfare computer system, better known as SAMS. The Liberal government was facing harsh criticism for releasing a broken computer program (SAMS) that eventually racked up $140 million in overrun costs and wreaked havoc on Ontario's most vulnerable citizens whose monthly cheques were delayed or missing. I challenged the minister responsible because I was convinced they knowingly released a bugged system. I also chastised her for wasting money on consultants to fix the broken program. The $140 million they wasted fixing a broken program should have gone toward food, heat and hydro, dental programs and affordable housing for our most vulnerable people. To make matters worse, the top public servants at the Ministry of Social Services were given salary increases following the scandal break. Clearly, this is a troubling pattern of mismanagement at the Ministry of Community and Social Services, and sadly it's still ongoing.

Between March and April, the legislature was consumed by the government's anti-vaping legislation (Bill 45), the new Ontario pension plan, also known as the ORPP, and the Sudbury by-election scandal, namely calling on premier Wynne to step aside if charges are laid in any of the Sudbury by-election OPP investigations. The constituents I heard from had serious concerns with the direction the government was taking and I made sure their voice was heard at Queen's Park.

By the end of April, we laid out our key budget recommendations to the government. The PC caucus asked the Liberal government to walk away from the unaffordable Carbon Tax, as it's another tax on everything and people can't afford it and because we need to be assured the funds will actually be used to improve environmental concerns. We asked the government to forego the unaffordable Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, as it adds financial burden on workers and businesses, as well as we asked it to commit to reducing hydro rates so we no longer have to pay the highest energy costs in North America and lose even more manufacturing and jobs. Finally, we asked the government to commit to fixing homecare by tying CCAC funding to outcomes and clearly defined results.

Finally, we asked the Liberals to call-off their plan to sell a majority stake in Hydro One as this is what more than 80 per cent of Ontarians have asked. Selling the public utility was no way to climb out of the deficit. It is short term gain (for the Liberal books) and long-term pain for Ontario taxpayers. While we may realize an initial revenue source, we lose an annual $700,000,000 (current values) revenue source forever. Where will that money come from in future? My guess is increased taxes or reduced services!

In early May, Patrick Brown was elected as our new Ontario PC Leader. He has brought new ideas and certainly energy to our Caucus as the MPP for Simcoe-North, and I look forward to great things as we move toward the next election.

In mid-May I joined my constituents and hundreds of Ontarians on the front lawn of the provincial Legislature where we protested the Liberals' failed energy policies. The one common concern I hear from farmers, families, seniors on fixed incomes, businesses and our own public institutions – that is schools, hospitals and nursing homes – is that they can't keep up with the sky-rocketing hydro rates. This is especially troubling for public institutions that are being forced to make cuts to staffing levels and reduce services to make ends meet.

It was also in mid-May that I also started challenging the province's Minister of Education to put a stop to special education cuts and removal of 49 educational assistants at Bluewater District School Board. From teacher strikes to pending school closures and now slashed educational opportunities for our most vulnerable students, I challenged the Minister of Education to put the students' best interest at heart. I called out the government for spending millions on executives' bonuses but not finding money to keep educational assistants in the classroom. I don't know how you justify the fact that vulnerable students – some of whom are blind, autistic or diabetic – are being pushed out of the education system over a lack of resources when the government can find $5.7 million for the Toronto Pan Am Games executives' bonuses.

In October, I debated my private member's bill to cap third-party advertising in Ontario elections. My bill proposed a spending cap of $150,000 for each third-party group's partisan ads in an election. The fundamental principle is fairness. With the current rules fairness is being eroded and thus can allow such groups to in essence buy an election. The cap was supported by the province's elections watchdog, Greg Essensa, and would remove the ability of special-interest groups to buy influence in elections. It would also put Ontario's election laws in line with the rest of Canada.

Over the fall months I was taking government to task over wait times, which were putting my constituents' health in peril. I most recently challenged the Minister responsible for Long-Term Care to release her plan for building new nursing home beds and matching the 25,000 seniors on the wait list with a bed. I believe it is unacceptable that the government's cutbacks are forcing patients to wait longer and longer for care. I have asked to be, and pleased to be given the role of Opposition Critic for Long-Term Care and Wellness as I believe this an area that is not receiving proper priority by the government and is an area that will impact all of us as the 'baby-boomers' continue to age. It is my intent to make this file a key priority in the years ahead.

As 2015 closes, I am pleased to share some big wins this year, most recently keeping the Chesley RCU open, holding the ground-breaking for our new Marine Emergency Duties (MED) training facility (which I believe will ensure the sustainability of Georgian College in our community in future), blocking the introduction of a new home tax on homebuyers in Ontario, and the recent announcement that Units 3-8 will be re-furbished at Bruce Power, all very positive news, both locally and across the province!

I am pleased to share that my staff have helped a large number of people with their very specific issues and I am indebted to them for their efforts and dedication. From hydro bill issues, to driver's licence matters, to helping resolve WSIB and ODSP disputes, to helping to have a young boy transferred from a hospital to specialized care at Sick Kid's Hospital, we are here to help.

According to Ontario Monitor, a website dedicated to tracking activities in the Parliament, I was the third most prolific speaker (prolific being their word), having debated 659 times over the past year. I take my responsibility to voice the thoughts of the constituents I am privileged to represent very seriously and I am proud to do so. My plan for the New Year is to continue to stand up for my constituents and hold the government to account for how its policies are impacting us at home. I will oppose policies that I do not believe serve the best interests of the people of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound (my first priority) and the province, and will support and give credit where credit is due. I will try to carry out my responsibilities with balance and continue to do my best to earn the trust and respect of the people of our great riding.

All the best of health, happiness and prosperity in 2016.


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