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Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton is trying to build a working-class coalition

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development. He is advancing a highly ambitious policy agenda, including recently-passed legislation that prescribes a provincial ban on “non-compete” agreements and the so-called “right to disconnect.” The dialogue covers these major policy developments, how they deviate from conventional conservative policymaking, and how they may represent a blueprint for 21st-century conservative reform. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: Minister, let’s start by way of personal biography. You’ve accomplished more in politics at the age of 44 than most people can aspire to in an entire life, including getting elected as a local official as a 20-year-old. What drew you to politics at such a young age, and who influenced your public-spiritedness?

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: Well, I did get interested in politics at a very young age. I grew up in Newbury, Ontario, a small village in southwestern Ontario, and I read about my grandfather, Jack McNaughton. He passed away about five years before I was born, but he was a local reeve of our small town. He spent about two decades getting a local hospital built, the Four Counties General Hospital, in Newbury. It’s now about 55-years-old, but it was really reading about his dedication to serving our community that got me interested at a very young age.

Policy reforms

SEAN SPEER: You’ve recently announced and are advancing a series of policy reforms, from the so-called “right-to-disconnect,” to new regulations for gig workers, to eliminating non-compete clauses, which can stand in the way of people maximizing their human capital. These are all interesting, innovative ideas but they’re not necessarily part of the conventional conservative playbook. 

Why don’t you just reflect on how your own conservative commitments have found expression in these interesting policy ideas? And in so doing, why don’t you respond to those who argue that this agenda doesn’t look and feel like a typical conservative policy agenda?

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: Well, I would argue that everything Premier Ford and I am doing is conservative. It’s also just smart and long-overdue policy that reflects new and emerging issues in the modern labour market. 

Everything that we’re doing is to ensure that workers have bigger paycheques to support themselves, and, most importantly, their families. We’re improving workplace protections and spreading opportunities to people right across the province. So, I’m really excited about this. We are leading a lot of innovative conservative policies here in the province, and it’s all about rebalancing the scales between workers and employers, especially as we build back out of the pandemic.

SEAN SPEER: If we can scan out a bit, what is the underlying thesis that connects the dots between these various labour policy reforms? What fundamental problem are you trying to solve and what is the ultimate goal you’re trying to achieve?

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: I would say a couple of things. Number one, we have a labour shortage in the province. Today, there are 316,000 jobs going unfilled in the province of Ontario. When the pandemic hit the province, we had about 200,000 jobs going unfilled. I see this as the major generational challenge that we’re facing here in Ontario and right around the world. If we don’t maximize the human capital of every Ontarian—no matter where they live, who they are, and what their background is—it’s going to be a major drag on the province’s economic potential. More and better work, then, is both good for people and good for the province as a well. 

Secondly, we need workers to have more take-home pay. We’ve seen in recent months how inflation is impacting people’s paycheques and pockets. In practice, it means people are working harder and yet aren’t getting ahead. 

Everything in my recent policy announcements is built around more take-home pay, more workplace protections, and more opportunities to get better jobs. We want Ontario to be the best place in the world to work and raise a family. 

I think of the future shortages we have in the skilled trades. For example, in construction alone, we’re short 100,000 workers. Over the next number of years, the average journeyperson in Ontario is getting older. One-in-three journeypersons today is 55 or older. Here in Ontario, if we want to build our infrastructure projects on time and on budget, we need to train more workers. 

But that also brings me to one of my main missions: create good, meaningful opportunities for people. The jobs in the skilled trades are jobs for life; many of them make six figures with a defined pension and other benefits. These are the opportunities we want to create for people.

The skilled trades

SEAN SPEER: Minister, let me just take you up on that point. You and the government have an active and ambitious agenda in the name of trying to attract more people to get into the skilled trades. But it seems to me that there may be limits on the role of policy here. One of the reasons that we’ve seen a decline in the skilled trades, and some of the issues that you’re referring to with respect to shortages, is a socio-cultural expectation that people graduating from high school ought to pursue a university education. 

Ontario’s track record on post-secondary attainment is a major accomplishment for which successive governments deserve credit. But if the main issue here isn’t primarily about policy per se but rather about norms and expectations, how can you, as Minister, make significant progress? 

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: I would say I put the blame on previous governments for telling every young person in the province that the only way to be successful in life is by going to university. Obviously, there’s a huge role for universities to play, but we don’t need every single young person going that route. 

So, a major part of my work is trying to end the stigma around the skilled trades by talking about meaningful career opportunities for young people. We’re going to introduce the skilled trades as early as grade one in elementary schools across the province. I’m sending recruiters to grade nine classrooms to talk to young people about the opportunities. 

There are more than 140 different trades to choose from and, in many cases, these careers enable people to start their own businesses, hire people, and make a huge difference in their communities. These are really important jobs and careers. It’s been an injustice to young people to tell everyone that they have to go to university as if that’s the only way to be successful.

The changing conservative coalition

SEAN SPEER: Some of the policy changes that you’re enacting are occurring against the backdrop of a broader conversation in the realm of conservative ideas and politics about what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century. Most of that debate to date has been adjacent to politics and has been concentrated in the intellectual world. How can the agenda you’re pursuing become a bit of a blueprint or model for conservatives in other provinces, and indeed across the Anglosphere, to bring expression to conservative insights and principles to a new set of issues that necessarily look and feel different from some of the challenges that conservatives confronted in the 1980s and 1990s?

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about this. I mean, we’re certainly rebuilding a new coalition here in Ontario. These efforts to advance the interests of working-class Ontarians are a big part of that. 

As far as conservatives go, looking back to the 1980s and 1990s, we were always focused on cutting red tape and cutting regulations and focused on the size and cost to government. Now, these are all important things for conservatives to consider in order to grow the economy. Do not get me wrong. 

But I’ve come to the belief that here in Ontario, the NDP, and the Liberals have mostly abandoned working-class people. In many cases, they’re more interested in statues than good-paying jobs. My mission is to spread opportunity more widely and fairly create policies that enable people to get a better paying job to support their families. And that’s our mission, Premier Ford’s and mine, in a nutshell.

SEAN SPEER: One thing you’ve been candid about is that the perception that conservatives have been insensitive to the issues and concerns of working-class people over the years is not without some basis. What do you think explains the lack of attention that conservatives historically paid to these issues? And how can you overcome the trust deficit that may persist with some working-class Ontarians and the groups that represent them?

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: I can speak about my own personal experience. Growing up, our family had a Home Hardware building centre store. It’s funny as Minister of Labour now, I can’t say publicly what age my dad had me working in the family business; we have rules against that. But I remember starting at a young age. I was sweeping floors, cleaning washrooms, stocking shelves, going to work the checkout, and then, later on, going to load building supplies at seven in the morning. I didn’t care if you were a union member or a non-union member. It was ultimately about serving the customer and doing a good job. So, that’s where everything comes from. It’s that belief in helping workers. 

I would say that three years ago when I was asked to become the Minister of Labour here in Ontario, the first 100 days I met with over 100 members of the private sector and union leaders. I was the first not only Conservative Minister of Labour but Minister of Labour in Ontario to march in a Labour Day parade with thousands of blue-collar workers. That was important to me. I wanted to signal that I would be on the side of all workers. 

I just believe that we need a movement in Ontario and around North America that supports workers. We need to ensure that they’re getting a bigger piece of the economic pie. We all know more of that economic pie is held by a small few people, and it’s our mission here to rebalance those scales to ensure that the economy is working for everyone.

SEAN SPEER: Just one final question, Minister. You have a young family. Why don’t you talk a bit about balancing your responsibilities as a Minister, a member of the Provincial Parliament, a member of the cabinet, a future candidate for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, and a husband and a father?

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: Well, there’s nothing more important than being a dad and being a husband. We have an eight-year-old daughter, Annie. I’ve tried to do my part in introducing the skilled trades to her a couple of years ago. It’s a highlight for the two of us. I worked with my neighbour who’s been in the trades for 40 years as part of the Insulators Union. The three of us built a treehouse together. So, it’s my top priority to always dedicate as much time to being present; being there for my daughter, and for my wife. And thankfully, we’ve been able to do all of this as a family, and that remains my top priority.

SEAN SPEER: That’s great. Minister, it’s an honour to speak to you. Thanks for sharing these insights about your agenda and some of the issues and ideas that have underpinned your work.

MINISTER MONTE MCNAUGHTON: Great. Thanks for the chance to speak.