By Stew Slater
St. Marys Journal Argus
Monte McNaughton, the provincial Conservative party’s critic for labour, says he has heard repeatedly since first being elected that, if people knew what it would be like now in terms of the climate for small business owners, they wouldn’t have started out in the first place.
“I’ve heard that story hundreds of times,” the MPP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex told a gathering of over 50 business leaders and municipal government representatives at a roundtable discussion Wednesday, March 12 at the St. Marys Golf and Country Club.
The roundtable was hosted by Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece, with McNaughton and Huron-Bruce counterpart Lisa Thompson — the party’s critic for small business and agriculture — delivering short addresses to kick off the morning meeting.
McNaughton highlighted high energy costs as a big part of the reason why it has become so difficult for small business operators to keep their financial heads above water. Marked increases in electricity rates over the past two years have been exacerbated this winter by a rapid hike in the cost of propane and, most recently, an application by natural gas suppliers to also raise their rates.
“We need to get back to making energy policy connected to economic policy,” McNaughton suggested, arguing as well that the high cost of energy in Ontario effectively translates into “almost hav(ing) this sign up above Ontario that says ‘Closed for Business’.”
In her address, Thompson expanded on the theme of the cost of doing business, stating, “if your costs surpass what’s coming in, it gets very difficult . . . You can only work in the negative for so long before you go out of business.”
But the calls for action from the ruling Liberals didn’t stop at finding a way to help Ontario small business owners keep the lights on and the furnace running. Indeed, the strongest criticism from the three Conservatives hosting the roundtable discussion — and, it turned out, from the meeting participants — was reserved for what is perceived to be an ever-increasing mound of paperwork being piled on Ontario businesses.
Thompson cited a study completed on behalf of the province’s wine industry, demonstrating that wineries are audited more for taxes than they are for food safety or product quality.
“Their business is to make wine and to be productive. It’s not to fill out form after form,” the Conservatives’ small business critic charged. “They don’t want to be caught behind a desk penciling out forms.”
Thompson added the government has a role to play in setting the parameters by which business should be conducted, but argued that role has been misinterpreted by the present government. “We need to get out of the way of you guys doing business,” she said.
Particular government-related pet peeves — or, to be more exact, major annoyances — raised by roundtable participants on more than one occasion were the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), the Technical Standards Safety Authority (TSSA), and the Ontario College of Trades.
Pettapiece was quick to respond to a criticism of the TSSA, calling it “a piece of work” and relating a story from when his family ran a grain drying business in North Perth and faced long delays in importing a piece of equipment from the US. He added all three of the hosting MPPs had raised concerns about the TSSA in the Ontario Legislature.
Dennis Goforth, a meeting participant who runs Gotech Networking Solutions in Stratford, said the manner by which the provincial government assesses and allocates grant applications for job creation-related programs is also problematic.
“You can give (small business owners) $5,000 and we’ll run a mile with it. But in the hands of the government, you might get 10 feet,” he said.
Carey Pope, a St. Marys Town Councillor and downtown small business owner, added that the multitude of job creation-related government programs are so disperse among all the ministries and government websites, it’s practically impossible to keep track.
“Sometimes you can spend all day clicking on the Internet looking for government programs and grant programs, and get nowhere,” she said.
St. Marys food processing factory owner Stew Cardiff, of Shepherd Gourmet Dairy, said the culture of regulation by government officials — "and it's all three levels of government, I have to say" — has gone through a transformation in recent years. In the past, Cardiff offered, government inspectors brought across the sense that they worked on behalf of the business owners. Now, it seems like the reverse is true: inspectors bring across the sense that the business owners are working on behalf of the regulators.
“What ends up happening is that we’ve got to hire our own consultants, engineers, lawyers and accountants to deal with all of these regulations, because nowadays we don’t get any help from the inspectors,” he said.
Pettapiece told the participants the event was part of the launch of a new Conservative Party survey of Ontario voters about what needs to be done to improve the small business environment in the province.
“We don’t pretend to have all the answers to help our province, and that’s where we need your input as we work to develop our policy going into the next election — hopefully sooner rather than later,” he said, after encouraging the audience members to go online and find the party’s new survey.