Kudos to the organizers of last month’s Ontario Chamber of Commerce Annual General Meeting & Convention for orchestrating a major coup — arranging to have all three provincial party leaders attend. This could not have been an easy logistical feat!
Sarnia hosted the approximately 170 delegates over three days at the Holiday Inn in Point Edward.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, PC Leader Patrick Brown and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath each spoke during three separate 30-minute ‘fire-side chats’ responding to moderators’ questions, followed by Q&A from the floor. Each leader addressed similar issues, including U.S. trade relations, hydro rates, cap-and-trade, skills development and infrastructure among others.
Wynne spoke about policies south of the border. “We are in an uncertain time,” she said, “and we need to stand up for Ontario business with our U.S. counterparts.” Proposed tariffs on Canadian dairy products and softwood lumber, as well as President Donald Trump’s suggestion to scrap NAFTA are “forces creating uncertainty,” she said. However, Wynne assured that she has been meeting with state governors to reinforce relationships emphasizing how integrated our two economies are.
Wynne asserted that cap-and-trade is the cheapest and most effective way to tackle climate change while allowing businesses to benefit from the revenues generated. “All the money goes back into business,” she said. Furthermore, she wants Ontarians to be able to say to their children and grandchildren, “We worked very hard to get carbon emissions down.”
Patrick Brown suggested dismantling cap-and-trade, which he believes makes Ontario less competitive. He is also critical of Liberal handling of skyrocketing electricity prices, maintaining that Ontario produces more than we need, then gives it away ‘for free’ to Michigan. “Kathleen Wynne is the best energy minister Michigan has ever seen,” he scoffed.
Brown believes that with current shifts in industry, business must play a bigger role in on-going training by collaborating with government to make sure there will be enough skilled workers. As for infrastructure, he wants to see promised projects speeded up. “Pledged projects are not happening,” he said. All three levels of government need to work together to get shovels in the ground, and on time.
Andrea Horwath criticized the privatization of Hydro One, suggesting that the NDP would reverse that. On the issue of skills in the current work force, Horwath cites that, despite current low unemployment (5.8%), middle-aged men in particular are being displaced as industry changes. “If we leave people behind in times of economic prosperity, we create political outcomes like those in the U.S.,” she said. “We must translate GDP into jobs for real people.” She particularly worries about the auto parts industry, which has been hollowed out as jobs went south.
Horwath spoke directly to the business leaders in the room. “I was a city councilor; my ward was downtown (Hamilton) and I learned a lot about what it takes to run a business.”
Providing incentives for immigrants to move to rural and/or northern areas of the province needs to be a priority. “We are failing in this regard,” she said. Encouraging students to attend university in the north is one place to start.
Gerry McCartney, CEO London Chamber of Commerce summed up his observations, “Patrick (Brown) has a clearer, more defined set of policies; he articulated well the four pillars and his message resonates with me. Horwath is strong and passionate, though less specific. Wynne’s Ontario economy looks good, but policies with too much red tape don’t help. We fought the ORPP (Ontario Retirement Pension Plan); this year it’s cap-and-trade, which puts us into a questionable competitive position.”