TORONTO — Ontario politicians returned to the legislature Monday after a three-month summer break under the shadow of two Liberal trials happening simultaneously in Toronto and Sudbury.
The Liberal government is planning a packed fall agenda, with a major labour reform bill, a marijuana distribution law and various other pieces of legislation to be passed, but with an election less than nine months away the opposition parties will try to keep voters' attention on the courts.
One trial began Monday in Toronto, with two former staffers to ex-premier Dalton McGuinty facing breach of trust and mischief charges over allegations they illegally destroyed emails related to the government's decision to cancel two gas plants before the 2011 election. David Livingston and Laura Miller pleaded not guilty.
In Sudbury, Ont., another Liberal trial entered its second week. Pat Sorbara, the Ontario Liberal Party CEO at the time of the allegations, and Gerry Lougheed, a local Liberal fundraiser, have pleaded not guilty to bribery charges under the Election Act. They're accused of offering a would-be candidate a job or appointment to get him to step aside for Premier Kathleen Wynne's preferred candidate in a 2015 byelection in that city.
The New Democrats used nearly all of their time in question period — save for one question about Windsor flooding — to ask about the two trials
"What is inappropriate is the shenanigans that went on in Sudbury," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in question period. "That's what's highly inappropriate. Demanding jobs in exchange for running is a pretty serious allegation, and the Premier should take it seriously too."
Attorney General Yasir Naqvi answered all of the questions with variations of, "It is before the courts and we can't comment."
The trials involve separate sets of allegations from under two different premiers, but the opposition parties aim to tie them together and to the Liberal brand.
"Make no mistake, this is Liberal political corruption that's on trial," Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said before question period. "Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals can't be trusted to put the interests of the province ahead of their own. They are plagued with scandal, rife with waste and mismanagement and swimming in ethical lapses."
One of the major pieces of legislation that the government would prefer to focus on is a bill to regulate the distribution of recreational marijuana. The actual bill will be introduced some time this fall, but was unveiled in a big announcement Friday, which the opposition says was meant to distract Ontarians from the two trials.
Debate on labour reforms is set to start Tuesday as that bill heads toward a second reading vote. Public hearings were held this summer, and once it passes the majority Liberal legislature on second reading, it will be sent out for a second round of hearings.
The bill would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2019 as well as give equal pay for part-time workers, increased vacation entitlements and expanded personal emergency leave. While it has proven popular in government polling, business groups have been campaigning hard against the phase-in period for the minimum wage, saying the increase — it is currently set to rise to $11.60 in October — is too much to absorb that quickly.
The government is also set to unveil a package of offsets this fall to help businesses cope with increased costs due to labour changes.
The Tories also signalled Monday that with a new northern MPP in the House there will be a renewed push on northern issues. Ross Romano, who won a Sault Ste. Marie byelection in June for the party, stood in question period to ask about government commitments on the Ring of Fire — a region that holds one of the world’s richest deposits of chromite — used to make stainless steel — as well as nickel, copper and platinum, valued at anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion.