Mike Schreiner arrived late for a year-end interview with Canada's National Observer at his Queen’s Park office on Wednesday. And that was because the leader of the Green Party of Ontario was in the legislature trying to get a law in place to fine drivers who park in electric-vehicle parking spaces they don’t need.
On the day we met he was close to getting it done.
Amid a systematic teardown of the province’s environmental protections and actions against climate change, Schreiner co-sponsored a bill with Lorne Coe this summer to outlaw drivers of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars from parking in spaces designated for electric vehicles (EVs).
On Wednesday his bill, Bill 123, had just passed committee - the place where legislative efforts of non-government MPPs often come to die. But with the chief whip of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government on his side, Schreiner could smell a small victory at hand.
“It will come to the floor tomorrow and hopefully pass third reading tomorrow, which, you know, would be fantastic,” he said.
And it did.
On Thursday the bill passed the legislature’s final vote. And so, on the last day of legislative action for 2019, Schreiner notched his victory - the first Green legislation in Ontario history.
But at the same time Bill 123 is going into law, under Premier Doug Ford’s watch, the Metrolinx transit agency is tearing up EV charging stations at its GO commuter-train stations sprinkled across the greater Toronto and Hamilton area.
The provincial Crown agency says it made its own decision to remove the 24 charge spots based on cost-benefit analysis, but that decision was made in the context of the first Ford budget's sharp cuts to Metrolinx's funding and other transit spending.
Schreiner sees his victory as “a small step in the right direction." And he is happy to put his name to it.
The first and only member of the Green party to sit in Ontario's legislature, the member for Guelph is determined to collaborate any way he can to get a better green deal.
"I think I can be confrontational and critical of the government and hold them accountable, while at the same time finding ways, you know, at times, to work with them to move the needle forward,” he said.
And that, he said, means he can slam the government for their “made-to-fail climate plan" and still “take a step forward.”
Schreiner is a bit like a feisty boxer punching above his weight. He gets jabs in when he holds the floor of the legislature and by firing off pithy statements in response to the business of the day, whether it is related to climate and environment, the ongoing fight between education unions and the education minister, health care or affordable housing.
But on the climate file, Ford's Progressive Conservative government has been landing punches left and right and Schreiner, as a legislator with a primary focus on progressive climate action, has had to duck and weave and keep getting up off the mat.
"I can't live with myself if I don't keep pushing and pushing and pushing for them to act, because I don't think they understand the urgency of the crisis. And I also don't think they understand the opportunity costs of not acting," he said.
One of his jabs is Bill 123, the Reserved Parking for Electric Vehicle Charging Act, 2019, which decrees no one can park in an EV charging station unless it is attached to the station’s charging equipment. The fine is $125.
“This is common-sense legislation that makes life easier for EV drivers and removes one of the barriers standing in the way of EV adoption,” he said in a statement, politely suggesting the PCs use it to reverse their rollback of EV incentives.
The legislative assembly now takes a two-month break after just a six-week session, because Ford extended the summer break to five months ahead of the October federal election.
Metrolinx, EV drivers and ICE-holes
The Schreiner-Coe bill defines an electric vehicle as one that runs on only battery with an electric drive train, or a hybrid which also uses an internal combustion engine, and says only those vehicles can park in spots with plugs, and that they must be plugged in.
But it doesn't say what fate would face EV drivers who return to their cars to find they have been unplugged — a relatively common occurrence judging by comments in online EV forums, where drivers of gasoline-powered autos who park in EV spots are derided as "ICE-holes."
Only one-third of the 202 public charging spots in Toronto offer free charging, according to EV website chargehub.com, meaning EV drivers will in many cases be required to purchase power or face the fine.
It's far less than the cost of filling up at the gas station, but still acts as a headwind to wider adoption of EV vehicles. And it's not the only one.
In fact, while Ford’s environment ministry assumed today's 41,000 electric vehicles on Ontario roads would balloon to 1.3 million by 2030, it “had no policy mechanisms to drive this uptake,” according to a report released last week by the province's auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk.
Lysyk said the most egregious error in the Ford government's climate change calculations was an assumption Ontario vehicle owners would switch in large numbers to electric models despite its slashing of rebates on such purchases.
Metrolinx — the provincial Crown agency that manages and integrates transit and roads across the greater Golden Horseshoe that includes Niagara Falls, Peterborough, Barrie, Brantford, Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph — says it made its own decision to remove the 24 charge spots, which were each raising $450 in revenue per year against an annual operating cost of around $2,000, according to a CBC report from January.
But the agency — which also runs the Presto ticketing system replacing tiny tokens on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars, buses and subways — was also facing fresh fiscal strain: the Ford government in April cut $184 million (or 36.4 per cent) from its 2019-20 budget.
The Ford budget also cut $148 million from two separate line items for EV incentives and charging infrastructure, according to a review conducted by Peter Weltman, the province's financial accountability officer. Overall transit spending was cut by 40 per cent over five years.
The GO Transit chargers — which were installed at 12 of GO's 68 stations, were used a total of 3,610 times in 2017, Metrolinx said at the time, citing "low demand" as one reason they were removed on Nov. 21, 2018. Metrolinx's assets also include around 80,000 regular parking spaces, which cost around $40,000 each to create.
Metrolinx is currently talking with an unnamed "transportation partner to deliver a variety of services including EV charging," spokesman Nitish Bissonauth told National Observer in response to queries Thursday.
Bissonauth said that while the charging units had been removed, all infrastructure (conduit, wiring, handwells, mounting) remained in place at Ajax, Aurora, Burlington, Centennial, Clarkson, Erindale, Gormley, Guildwood, Lincolnville, Oakville, Pickering and Whitby stations.
Environment losing Ontario fight
Schreiner cites other examples of upswings — getting wording out of Bill 66 that would have opened the Greenbelt for development and weakened the Clean Water Act, for example — but readily admits coming up against a litany of regressions he counts as running at a five-to-one ratio.
Ford had campaigned, heading into the June 2018 election, on cancelling Ontario's cap-and-trade system and fighting Ottawa's alternative federal carbon price, and his government axed the scheme that made polluters pay for green public works almost immediately.
The cap-and-trade system raised $2.4 billion in 2017-18 and dismantling it will create a $3-billion hole over the three years to 2021-22, Weltman, the financial accountability officer, said in October last year.
Ford also cancelled the many programs run off its proceeds, including one that paid residents up to $14,000 if they bought electric vehicles. (Tesla won a court case against Ontario arguing it, as both automaker and dealership, was singled out by the change. Tesla has also built one of the largest private charging networks in the province.)
Conservation authorities have also been told to wind down programs deemed unnecessary, causing concern among environmentalists of a weakening of protections against increasingly severe floods.
“All of that has been bitterly, bitterly disappointing,” Schreiner said, including that the government then leverages use of his name to bolster its consultative credentials.
Environment Minister Jeff Yurek and other government ministers are eager to thank Schreiner for his willingness to offer solutions, usually in order to contrast it with perceived intransigence on the part of the NDP.
“I've sent them our plan, both the previous and current minister,” Schreiner said, referring to former environment minister Rod Phillips (now finance minister) and the incumbent, Yurek. “But I find it bitterly disappointing that they haven't adopted any of the proposals we put forward on climate action.”
One hit that particularly stings for Schreiner is Bill 132, an omnibus bill tabled by the minister for red-tape reduction, which environmentalists complain makes it cheaper to pollute in the province. It was passed into law earlier this week.
“When that bill passed committee, I was pretty down because I felt like, man, like, how can the government do this?" he said. "What more can I do to convince them that environmental protections are not red tape?”
Different strategy for NDP
By contrast to Schreiner's targeted activism, the Opposition NDP's 40 legislators are more focused on the political calculation of a party seeking power rather than mere influence.
It will need to get through the other side of a Liberal leadership race in 2020 as the most viable option for climate action for voters looking to dislodge Ford’s government in the next election, due by mid-2022.
To that end, Peter Tabuns, the NDP's energy and climate crisis critic, also got a piece of proposed green legislation on the books this week, introducing a private member's bill calling for the province’s electricity system, hospitals, schools and universities, municipalities, public housing and government vehicle fleets to be directed to cut emissions by at least 5 per cent a year until they reach net-zero.
That move adds meat to the bones of the NDP's Green New Democratic Deal.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday, said she was proud of the efforts her party had put into opposing Ford's cuts to education and health services, as well as climate and other files, and felt the NDP had also put forward a compelling alternative vision.
"What would we do if we were government, what would our focus be?" she said. "It's about showing people that there can be a different vision and things can be done differently by a government here in Ontario."
While the opposition leaders were taking questions from reporters on the last day of the 2019 legislative season, Ford instead sent Peter Bethlenfalvy, the president of the Treasury Board, to respond to news the four main education unions had collectively launched court challenges against the government’s 1 per cent public sector wage cap.
Pride in small victories
Schreiner said he took pride in other small victories in 2019, including the mobilization of public opposition that helped get Schedule 10 removed from Bill 66.
“When the government backtracked on that, that was like a proud moment... and it was a moment that showed me that, you know, you can mobilize people and get the government to backtrack on something that you care about and that people care about,” he said.
Through private member's bills, the bully pulpit of a seat in the legislature and pithy quotes to reporters, Schreiner is using all of the limited leverage at his disposal as a solo MPP to cheerfully and competently fight Ford's cuts.
"I'm trying to use all those levers," he said, adding that as an elected official, he could also act as a conduit to get people working together on a range of issues. "We're doing a lot of work right now, bringing various community stakeholders together around housing affordability and mental-health issues and climate issues.
"And so that's another avenue sort of we're using, multiple tools in the toolbox to try to move the agenda forward."