TORONTO - Ontario's governing Liberals insist they can still reach their target of cutting auto insurance rates by an average of 15 per cent across the province, even though they're only a third of the way there with just a year to go.
Rates have dropped an average of 5.44 per cent since the government started to take measures aimed at combating insurance fraud last year, Finance Minister Charles Sousa said Tuesday.
He acknowledged that recent filings showed the provincial regulator approved rate changes over the past three months that resulted in an overall 0.22 per increase, with one company receiving approval for a 4.19 per cent hike.
"There are some companies that have already priced themselves below market and now they're trying to figure out how to best compete," Sousa said.
About a dozen companies have reduced their rates by over 10 per cent since the government started addressing the issue, he said. More should follow once a bill aimed at tackling insurance fraud and inflated towing costs passes in the legislature, helping the government reach its goal by August 2015.
"We're taking every action necessary to try to meet that target and we recognize that in order to do so, we have to pass the legislation as soon as possible," Sousa said.
His advice for drivers who keep seeing their premiums go up? Shop around.
"It's up to consumers to choose the best possible rate that they can get," he said.
The Liberals introduced two bills in the spring dealing with auto insurance and towing rules, but they were scrapped when the June 12 election was called.
Sousa's merging them into a single bill that's all but certain to pass since the Liberals now have a majority of seats in the legislature.
Among other measures, it would move the dispute resolution system for injured drivers from Ontario's insurance regulator to an existing tribunal run by the Ministry of the Attorney General, which he says will help resolve disputes more quickly.
It also proposes more oversight of the billing practices of health clinics and allow only licensed service providers to be paid directly by insurers. Insurance agents or adjusters who abuse the system could also see their licences suspended immediately.
There are measures to cut down on the amount of time vehicles can be stored after an accident, so owners and insurers won't be squeezed for more money.
The proposed law would also force tow truck operators to register their vehicles, get permission from a driver before charging for towing and storage services, post their prices and provide itemized invoices detailing all charges.
Sousa may claim that fraud is at the root of high premiums, but insurers are still racking up record profits, said NDP critic Jagmeet Singh.
The Liberals are "bending over backwards" to cut costs for insurance companies, rather than pressing ahead to reduce insurance rates for consumers, he said.
"This is a gift to the insurance companies, this is a way of reducing their costs once again but there's absolutely no guarantee that this will result in a reduction in rates for drivers," he said.
Sousa said rates would have gone down further if the opposition parties, who collectively had a majority of seats in the legislature, had allowed the legislation to pass before the election was called.
The Progressive Conservatives say they're cautiously supportive of the measures, but that Sousa is looking for a scapegoat.
"Look, they have nobody to blame but themselves," said Tory finance critic Vic Fedeli.
"Quite frankly, these guys look for any excuse to pass blame on every single issue ... it's always somebody else's fault."