Provincial Liberal “Reset” Contains Few Surprises, Introduces Focus on Pocketbook Issues

Following the June 2016 Cabinet Shuffle, the Wynne government has been taking the summer to re-tool. While much of the focus over the summer has been on fundraising reform and fighting a by-election in the erstwhile Liberal stronghold of Scarborough Rouge River, the Wynne government’s latest Throne Speech signals a small but notable shift to addressing pocketbook issues like the rising costs of hydro rates.

Days before the September 12, 2016 resumption of the legislative session, Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi announced that the government would prorogue the legislature. This move allowed for a new Throne Speech and clears the order paper of any unpassed legislation. The Liberals have committed to re-introducing all government legislation that was not passed at the time the legislature was prorogued, including key legislation like Bill 201 (political fundraising reforms) and Bill 210 (transformation of the province’s health care system).

Throne Speech Outlines Government Priorities, Offers Few Surprises

While primarily a recap of the government’s accomplishments over the course of its time in office, there were a number of new initiatives that signal a shift in the government’s focus to policy-making that provided tangible benefits to Ontarians in an effort to make their lives more affordable.

Chief among these initiatives is a rebate on hydro bills equal to the provincial portion of the HST (8 per cent), which will take effect on January 1, 2017. The increasing cost of hydro was a frequent complaint at the door during the by-election, and the issue was singled out in the Premier’s statement following the Liberals’ defeat in that campaign. Additional hydro-focused initiatives announced in the Throne Speech include an expansion to the supports provided to rural Ontarians amounting to up to 20 per cent savings on their bill, as well as expanded eligibility for Industrial Conservation Initiative, an initiative that provides hydro rate savings for businesses that shift their consumption to off-peak hours.

The second initiative introduced in the Throne Speech is a promised expansion of new child care spaces of 100,000 over five years, beginning in 2017. While few details have been provided, the government has said that this expansion will include both capital and ongoing operating funding in school-based, home-based, and community-based expansion for children 0-4 years of age. As part of its commitment to education, the government also highlighted an expanded focus on skills training and enhanced mathematics education.

Beyond these two initiatives, the Throne Speech was primarily a summary of the government’s accomplishments that highlighted its expanded infrastructure spending, its Climate Change Action Plan, its health care investments, and its successful advocacy with both the federal government and other provinces to expand the CPP and provide enhanced retirement security for Canadians.

Summer Re-Cap

By-Elections

By-elections occupied the time and minds of vacationing MPPs and staff this summer. Patrick Brown and the PC party pulled off an upset win in the riding of Scarborough Rouge River with former Toronto City Councillor Raymond Cho. The Premier said her party’s defeat gave her “cause for reflection” and she committed to looking at ways to reduce the burden of increasing hydro rates. While it did not cost him the by-election, Patrick Brown continues to face fall-out from a letter distributed to the riding in which he promised to repeal the recently updated sexual education curriculum; after the letter became public, he stated that the letter’s content does not in fact represent his position and he had not authorized its distribution, something the media continues to look at with skepticism.

Niagara West—Glanbrook MPP and former Progressive Conservative Leader, Tim Hudak, will resign his seat on September 16, 2016. Hudak is leaving Queen’s Park to join the Ontario Real Estate Association as its new CEO. A high profile nomination battle looms in his wake, as PC Party President Rick Dykstra and Party Vice President Tony Quick face off against each other to earn the right to carry the party banner in this PC Party stronghold.

Despite her resignation in June, no by-election has been called to replace Madeleine Meilleur in Ottawa Vanier. Nathalie Des Rosiers, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, has put her name forward to run for the Liberal party and Cameron Montgomery, also a professor at U of O, is seeking the nomination for the PCs. The NDP have already nominated their candidate, Claude Bisson, a retired RCMP executive and the brother of NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson. It is expected the Premier will call the by-elections in Niagara and Ottawa sometime before the New Year.

Fundraising Reforms

Fundraising dominated the political agenda this summer. The special committee set up to review fundraising legislation spent the summer travelling around the province to participate in public consultations. This process came to a head on August 29th when the committee sat for public hearings. Throughout this process the government committed to placing limits on corporate and union donations, and announced that all MPPs and candidates standing for election will be banned from attending fundraising events in an effort to address “cash-for-access” allegations. With prorogation, the fundraising legislation technically falls off the order paper. However, Liberal House Leader Yasir Naqvi promised to reintroduce the legislation immediately at the start of the new session.

Hydro Rates

Hydro rates were a key contributor to the government’s by-election loss in Scarborough Rouge River last month. The Premier has now committed to taking action on hydro rates, and the government will provide a rebate of the provincial portion of the HST (8 per cent) on hydro beginning in January 2017. Both opposition parties have been crying foul on hydro since the sell-off of Hydro One was announced at the start of this government’s mandate two years ago. As all three parties begin to position themselves as the champion for affordable hydro, expect to see this issue to be a prominent ballot question for the 2018 provincial election.

Cabinet Shuffle

Indira Naidoo-Harris has been assigned a new role in Cabinet after the announced wind-down of the ORPP, following the federal-provincial agreement on an enhancement to the CPP. Minister Naidoo-Harris’s new role is to support Education Minister Mitzie Hunter as the new Associate Minister of Education. Her responsibilities will focus on Early Years and Child Care.

Despite being two months removed from the latest cabinet shuffle, the Premier has yet to issue mandate letters to her new team. Furthermore, staffing is still an issue throughout the government with a number of un-filled positions at the mid-senior and junior levels. Mandate letters and staffing issues will need to be dealt with early in the new fall session.

Outlook for the New Legislative Session

Government:

Expect Premier Kathleen Wynne to attempt some new governing tactics as she seeks to win back the support of Ontarians after hitting her lowest approval rating ever this summer at 16%, according to an August Forum poll. The government has announced a rebate to reduce the cost of hydro in their September 12, 2016 throne speech, and we can expect new measures over the coming months to help Ontarians with other household costs. This approach is part of a broader shift toward policy-making that makes people’s lives better and more affordable in the short-term.

The government is confident in Ontario’s economic prospects over the next two years—including revenue growth that will help it meet its goal of eliminating the provincial deficit in the 2017/2018 Budget—which gives the province additional fiscal room to introduce these measures. The government will also continue its focus on infrastructure investments, health care reform, and its Climate Change Action Plan. A key challenge in all of these ambitious policy initiatives is to translate these measures into benefits that help Ontarians in their everyday lives. They also run up against lingering negative feelings over a number of accumulated scandals that have led to a belief that government has not been operating in a transparent manner—a belief that was reinforced through months of media criticism around cash-for-access fundraising practices.

Opposition:

As it currently stands, both opposition parties are taking a cautious and calculated approach when it comes to their policies heading into the next election. Despite their policies generally being shrouded in mystery, the opposition parties have articulated a clear stance on energy and the sell-off of Hydro One. Energy policy will no doubt be at the fore leading up to the next election. The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats will strive to persuade the public of the Liberal government’s fiscal mismanagement on the energy file and ill-advised decision to privatize Hydro One, all of which they will argue has led to unaffordable energy rates and the detrimental state of Ontario’s energy sector. However, recent history has shown that the biggest opponents for the opposition parties are themselves, as both have failed to capitalize on the Liberals’ repeated scandals and public apathy after four terms of a Liberal government. This failure stemmed from lackluster policies that did not connect with the public, as well as voter hesitation to allow either opposition party to form government. The onus is on the opposition parties to create a narrative that will inspire voters and gain their trust.