Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne sat down with Global News for a year-end interview and discussed some of the biggest issues facing her party in the coming year including hydro, road tolls and cap-and-trade costs as the Liberals prepare for a contentious provincial election in 2018.
Wynne called high electricity prices across the province her “mistake” during the party’s annual general meeting last month, adding that the fact some Ontarians are being forced to choose between paying for electricity over food or rent is “unacceptable.”
“I’ve taken responsibility for that,” she said. “I’ve said that there’s more we need to do and that’s what the minister and I will be looking for, is how can we take more costs out of the system.”
“I’ve said that I take responsibility for not understanding fully and early enough that this was such a burden on people.”
The premier said Monday that her government had been working to “take costs off people’s electricity bills” by removing the debt retirement charge, putting in place the Ontario Energy Support Program (OESP) for low income families and removing the provincial portion of the HST — which amounts to an eight per cent reduction on electricity bills.
“There are still low income families in Ontario who haven’t applied to that program, and you know I want them to,” she said. “They need to because they can see a significant reduction on their bills.”
With regard to her recent apology on growing electricity rates in comparison with the her previous contrition on the gas plants scandal, the premier said those were “very different situations.”
WATCH: Wynne promises more relief for high Ontario hydro bills
“In the one case, with the gas plants, I said right out that there were things that happened that shouldn’t have happened. I apologized and took responsibility on the part of the government for that,” she said.
“On the electricity prices and the investment in our clean electricity system, I’m apologizing that people have had to bear that load. But I wasn’t saying that the things that we did shouldn’t have been done.”
Wynne said shutting down coal plants, investing in infrastructure, provincial hydro lines and jump-starting a renewable energy sector to ensure a reliable, clean energy grid are pat of a costly process.
“We had to do those things. We inherited a dirty, unreliable system. We had to make those investments And so in making those investments, there’s a cost associated with that,” she said.
“But there’s a cost and that cost has been borne by people around the province.”
The premier pointed to the fact her government signed a $1 billion annual hydroelectricity deal with Quebec last week, which she said would “augment the supply in Ontario.”
“There may be more of those kinds of things that we can do to help electricity prices go down. So we’re going to be looking in many ways at how we can look across the system and reduce costs, but we don’t have those answers,” she said.
“What we do know is on Jan. 1, eight per cent will come off people’s bills.”
The premier said she was open to the possibility more money from the province’s general revenue stream could be accessed to help Ontarians with growing hydro costs, in addition to the eight per cent rebate from provincial HST already costing the provincial treasury $1 billion per year.
WATCH: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne booed over rising hydro rates
When asked if she was aware the problem of hydro affordability was worse in rural areas of the province, Wynne agreed more had to be done to address the issue.
“There are pockets of concern, absolutely,” she said, adding an additional 12 per cent will be offered to hydro consumers in rural and northern communities — meaning about 300,000 people will see a 20 per cent reduction.
“I think there are people who are in situations that are worse than others.”
Wynne also said she will work with her government to “even out the delivery charges” that disproportionately affect hydro customers across the province and is open to taking more money from city-dwelling ratepayers to make up the difference.
When asked why her government hadn’t issued a directive to the OEB to force them to show the 4.3 cents per litre rise of gas prices in Ontario and the increase in residential natural gas bills by $5 a month under her cap-and-trade plan, the premier referred questions to the OEB.
“I think it’s a good question to ask about what should be and shouldn’t be transparently on electricity bills,” she said, adding that it was a conversation the province and the OEB could continue to have.
“I think the more information that people can have access to, the better.”
WATCH: Andrea Horwath questions Kathleen Wynne over Global News hydro bill story
Wynne added that her government has been transparent on the issue from day one.
“The OEB made that decision and we’ve been very clear from the beginning that as a result of taking greenhouse gas emissions out of the environment, of tackling the single biggest challenge to humanity that we’re confronting right now, that there will be a small increase on people’s gas bills,” she said.
“So that is a fact. We’ve been clear about that from the beginning.”
The premier said despite the fact hydro costs are expected to be a major issue in the 2018 election, the more important issue is assisting those in the province who need help.
“It’s not about the re-election. It’s about helping people to deal with their electricity costs,” she said.
“Yes, there’s a political reality that I deal with, but that’s not the reason for doing the things that we do.”
On the issue of road tolls, the premier said earlier this month she would not stand in the way of Toronto’s tolling of city-owned roads such as the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway.
“I have a strong belief in local democracy and I think that council needs to have the right to make a decision like this and bring a proposal to the province and so we’ll await the specifics of that proposal,” she said.
“Every level of government needs to work together in terms of investing in infrastructure and that’s exactly what the mayor and the council are trying to do.”
WATCH: Ontario PC leader questions Premier Wynne on ‘band-aid’ hydro solutions during QP
The premier said that she’s prepared to defend her comments on road tolls against the opposition in the 2018 election, comments she said were in line with the plan the Liberals ran on in 2014 to invest in infrastructure across the province.
“Let me just say that Mr. Brown and Ms. Horwath, neither of them has a plan for building infrastructure in this province. What they choose to do is just say no to everything that comes forward,” she said.
“That doesn’t build the province, that doesn’t bring economic development, that doesn’t increase the province’s well-being. So they can continue on that path.”
“And so I’m happy to have that conversation with the opposition today or in 18 months.”
When asked if the cost of living has gone up in Ontario under her government, Wynne said the investments have been worth the province leading the country in economic growth.
“Making sure that kids have free tuition who are living in low income families, creating more subsidized child care spaces, making sure that people have a break on their electricity bills and helping to remove costs, those are things that affect people in their day to day lives too, making sure people have transit options,” she said.
“Those are investments that we’re making to help people every single day and we will continue to work to find those and at the same time, we’re going to continue to make investments, because if we don’t, we won’t continue to lead the country.”
With files from Madeline Campbell
Alan Carter’s full interview with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will air on Focus Ontario on Dec. 24 at 5:30 p.m. ET