Premier's Remarks at the 2015 OGRA/ROMA Combined Conference
The Ontario Good Roads Association and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association's Combined Conference is a highlight in all of our calendars, as it is for the many mayors and councillors whose presence here speaks volumes about their commitment to their constituents, and highlights the important work that gets done at the OGRA/ROMA forum.
The Combined Conference and its predecessors have a proud history of bringing us closer together and closer to solving our challenges, and a proud history of building up our province and tearing down the myth that we are divided along rural and urban lines. As Premier, I try to do my part to tear down that myth too. And I know I can count on you to help.
OGRA was founded in 1894 to help the province see the potential that good roads would unlock for urban and rural Ontarians alike. Now, 121 years on, we have progress to celebrate - and still a ways to go. The saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same" applies.
Here is a good example.
At OGRA's 23rd annual conference in February of 1925, Ontario's Deputy Minister of Highways, S.L. Squire, filling in for his absent boss, declared that financing of roads was one of the great problems in which every municipality and municipal officer was interested in. Squire acknowledged that the province had "passed the buck" to municipalities, that taxes were unlikely to rise anytime soon, and went on to cite the many reasons why the federal government should financially assist provinces and municipalities in the matter of road improvement.
Things had changed since 1867, he said. It was time for governments to change too, he argued.
So when I saw that the theme of this year's conference is CTRL+ALT+DEL: Rebooting Ontario's Municipal Sector, it got me thinking about where we have been stuck in the past and where we have been able to make progress - and it also made me energized by the unique opportunity before us.
Ontario's 444 municipalities have just been through elections. Provincially, we too have a fresh mandate. This gives all of us an opportunity to deliver the positive change we all believe is possible and that many of us campaigned on. But we also know that we cannot make that change alone - that now is the time for us to work together.
Your conference program hints at this - and at Squire's frustration - when it describes municipal success as dependent on whether you can "respond to 21st century demands when saddled with a 19th century legislative toolbox." There is truth to that, but today I want to challenge that premise, because it suggests that you do not expect anything to change between us - that you are stuck with the 19th century toolbox and that is that.
It is not true.
It is a reality that we, as governments, need to be constantly evolving. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace. Aging infrastructure is in need of renewal at the same time that a growing population requires us to invest in new infrastructure. Public expectations have increased, and rightfully so, because citizens care deeply about public services. And underpinning all of this, we have global economic realities to contend with.
These are challenges, to be sure, but they are also opportunities we are using to rethink and reboot. Looking at our past achievements, together with the commitments our government has made going forward, I am convinced that we will seize this moment together. I am convinced that we will deliver the reboot that is needed.
And now I am going to convince you.
I just recently marked my second anniversary as Premier - some of you may remember that this event was actually one of my first after being sworn in two years ago. In my time as Premier, I have been focused on strengthening relationships and building co-operation at all levels - municipal, inter-provincial, federal and international. That is not a sound bite and it is not predicated on the naïve assumption that we can always agree. It is, quite simply, a learned strategy for success.
For the past 10 years, I have been part of a government intent on rebuilding our relationships, intent on helping municipalities succeed as partners, intent on working closely with municipal leaders, and making sure that we, at the provincial level, have experience in the municipal sector and an understanding of your issues from every perspective.
I think the best example of this is the phased uploads that are relieving some of the pressure you are under. In 2015 alone, these uploads will save rural municipalities more than $320 million; those savings will increase even more as we continue working toward full implementation by 2018.
As an MPP since 2003, I have seen the value of a provincial government that puts a rural lens on its decision-making - and the challenges created when that lens is overlooked, as it has at times been.
For example, we know that modern infrastructure is key to being competitive in the global economy, and to driving growth here at home. That is no less true across rural and urban boundaries, but it can mean different things.
Right now, limited access to natural gas is acting as a barrier to growth in too many rural municipalities. So in last year's election, we committed $200 million in loans and $30 million in grants to get more lines to more homes and businesses. And just last week, the Ontario Energy Board took the next steps and invited applications from parties interested in distributing natural gas to underserved areas.
Here is another infrastructure example where our partnership paid off: the new Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund. Working together, we were able to launch this steady source of long-term, predictable funding for the unique infrastructure needs of small, rural and northern municipalities across the province. And we aligned the Fund with the joint Small Communities Fund because we know that your resources are stretched and that creating more provincial paperwork would just slow progress for people in your communities.
Looking forward, our partnership will be critical as we apply the rural lens to Moving Ontario Forward. This 10-year transit and transportation strategy will make nearly $29 billion available. Of this, nearly $14 billion will go toward projects in your communities. These funds will build and support better public transit in congested cities and better roads to connect towns and rural and remote communities all across the province.
Our roads carry our economy, they carry our loved ones, and they are an important part of our vision for a province-wide transportation network. So when you tell me that having connecting links projects eligible under the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund is not enough to support these vital pieces of our infrastructure, you have my full attention.
I have asked Ministers Del Duca, Leal, Duguid and McMeekin to use our Moving Ontario Forward program to address connecting links - because our cities, towns and all our municipalities need to be part of one transportation network. They are looking at this right now, and as soon as we can move ahead, we will do it together.
At the same time, I have called on the federal government to be a full and engaged partner in building the local infrastructure that will fuel Canada's growth and prosperity for the next 50 years - as it has for the past 150. It is not enough for provincial and local governments to work together - we need a stronger federal partner. Deputy Minister Squire was right - the national economic benefit is too significant for the federal government to ignore and everyone in this room has a role to play in making the case.
Over the past two years, I have also placed a high priority on building strong interprovincial relationships. Working with Premier Couillard, I have strengthened the Ontario-Quebec partnership to increase trade between our two provinces.
And we are increasing opportunities in markets like China and South America to make Ontario more globally competitive. When I was in China last fall to lead a trade mission, agri-food came up in nearly every meeting. The success of Ontario's agri-food sector and that of our province are inseparable. It is another area where the rural lens in government is so critical, where the premise that rural and urban interests are at odds is so false, and where the opportunity to lead is so great. That is why Minister Leal is heading to China soon on a trade mission dedicated to promoting our agri-food sector.
But a thriving sector requires a lens as wide as government itself, so we have been active elsewhere too. In 2013, we introduced the Local Food Act to get more Ontario food on Ontario tables, even as we worked to find new markets overseas and increase exports. And since I took office, we have tripled support for the Rural Economic Development Program. The 2014 Budget confirmed that $14.5 million will be available annually to continue attracting investment and keeping good jobs in your community. That is what our Open for Business strategy and red tape reduction efforts have been helping to do. Most recently we were able to improve the management of greenhouse nutrient feedwater and help Ontario greenhouse growers become even more competitive by making the approvals process less costly and more predictable.
Regulation is a word with a bad reputation, and deservedly so. Regulations can outlive their original purpose and become burdens. Reducing regulation needs to be an ongoing effort because as I said earlier, Ontario is constantly evolving. But that also means new regulations to adapt to changing circumstances, and we need to be careful here not to paint all regulation with the same brush. Regulations serve important purposes and carry demonstrable benefits, but only if we develop and retire them together, which is exactly what we will continue to do.
The approach we have taken, your partnership, the talent and skills of our growers and processors, the leadership provided by Ministers Leal and McMeekin - all are helping to move towards the target I set for Ontario's agri-food sector to double its growth rate and create 120,000 new jobs by 2020. In fact, agri-food exports are up about 10 per cent annually over in the past 2 years and the sector has added over 17,000 jobs last year alone. It is cause for optimism, but we know challenges remain.
Provincially, we are committed to eliminating the deficit by 2017-18. But we will not get there by making across-the-board cuts to services or support for municipalities. What we are doing is fundamentally rethinking how government works, and how we can continue to deliver the best programs and services to our communities. It is about doing government differently, rebooting the public sector as a whole.
For example, our Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative, which is part of our government's Poverty Reduction Strategy, was a reboot of our existing initiatives and has helped about 33,100 households experiencing homelessness obtain housing. It has helped another 83,800 households who were at risk of homelessness remain in their homes.
Though this initiative is provincially funded, it is supported by Ontario's 47 Service Managers. These people work for municipalities, which means they know their communities' needs best, and they can help make sure we are getting the most value out of each dollar and that we are helping as many people as we can. Further proof that we can - and do - achieve so much more when we work together.
Another example of how we are updating your toolbox together is the ongoing consultation on the Provincial Land Tax. We have consulted extensively across the north and have worked closely with northern municipalities on this issue. We have heard the serious concerns raised by northern municipalities about the property tax inequities between taxpayers in municipalities and unincorporated areas, where the Provincial Land Tax rates have not been changed in over 60 years.
My commitment to you today is that we will reform the Provincial Land Tax. In fact, we will bring forward proposals that can be implemented beginning this year.
And to those of you who would like to talk with the province about whether it is time to give municipalities new revenue tools - time to create some 21st century tools - it is a discussion I am open to having. We need to be willing to consider every option that will help build our communities up. Revenue tools that give municipalities the fiscal space to grow while balancing the need to remain competitive have worked elsewhere. They can't be off the table. Jeff and Ted and I look forward to your input on that.
Our relationship with municipalities is always evolving, and that's a good thing. On infrastructure, on business environment, revenue tools, services, and in all the ways municipalities are essential partners in building this province up, we are proud of the changes we have made together.
As we look to the future, as we work together to continue building a more competitive Ontario, a fairer Ontario and a more prosperous Ontario for all, we can do so with confidence that we will continue evolving and rebooting when necessary - and confidence that with this approach, we will do what the leaders of our province have always done: continue expanding opportunity and creating security for people today and tomorrow.