Government inertia at Queen’s Park is at its worst in living memory. After years of uncertainty, scandal, political gamesmanship, mounting debt and drift, little productive work is getting done. For example, the number of laws enacted in the two years following the 2011 election has dropped by ¾ and ⅔ compared to the 2003 and 2007 elections respectively. This trend is unlikely to improve before the next election.
The next several months will be full of pre-election posturing, including platform development, by all three parties. During this time, opportunities exist for stakeholders to demonstrate how their issues align with the parties’ respective priorities. It is not a time to disengage from Ontario government and politics. In the recent period of federal minority governments, for example, effective stakeholder engagement led to policy directions that might not otherwise have taken root, e.g. law and order initiatives advocated by the Police Chiefs and expanded infrastructure funding advocated by different groups.
To provide insights on the uncertain period ahead at Queen’s Park, we turned to experts from other fields and jurisdictions for advice.
What to Watch
1. “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.” – William Shakespeare
At the risk of stating the obvious, Premier Kathleen Wynne enters the fall session of the Legislature with the hardest job of the three party Leaders. She alone leads both a party and a government, the latter of which is deeply in debt and faces immense ongoing fiscal challenges. Moreover, she and her government will face aggressive opposition from the PCs and the NDP, while trying to find closure on the gas plants scandal. The challenge for Premier Wynne will be to articulate a clear policy agenda – under very trying circumstances – that can match her personal credibility and likeability.
2. “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a [Progressive Conservative].” – Will Rogers (paraphrased)
PC Leader Tim Hudak finds himself in an unenviable position, notwithstanding his party’s consistent lead in the polls. Despite presiding over the first PC by-election win in a riding not previously held by the PC party in nearly 20 years and winning a Toronto riding for the first time since 1999, he is facing vocal dissent from two caucus members, a handful of party members and one or two disgruntled party operatives. The dissent will come to a head at the PC Policy Conference in late September; however, the negative effects may last through to the next election. In spite of the internal distractions, the PC Leader and his caucus will continue to articulate their plan for the province by adding to their extensive list of policy white papers this fall in order to establish themselves as the most viable government-in-waiting.
3. “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else.” – Judy Garland
The NDP and its Leader Andrea Horwath have gained three seats in a handful of by-elections since the 2011 general election (the Liberals are down three seats, the PCs are even). Her personal popularity also remains higher than the other two Leaders’. There is a real sense of momentum in the 3rd party. Nevertheless, her party continues to trail in the polls. Moreover, after running against Dalton McGuinty and Tim Hudak in 2011, Horwath needs to contend with a second likeable, thoughtful, left-of-centre female leader in Premier Wynne. Horwath will need to differentiate herself from Wynne. Expect her and her caucus to focus on ensuring that the policy concessions they won from the government are passed. The NDP is likely to spend more time criticizing the implementation of the government’s policies rather than their substance.
4. “If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.” – Admiral Hyman Rickover
Political gridlock does not mean that nothing is happening. The civil service will continue to help implement those parts of the government’s agenda that do not require legislation (e.g. regulation or other administrative tools). They will also be critical players in the formulation and implementation of future government priorities. The civil service, unlike many (or most) politicians and political staff, will be around regardless of who wins the next election. The bureaucracy’s ability to advance or stall policies in the short and medium terms is an important fact of life. Strengthening relationships with the civil service, especially in politically uncertain times, is a wise investment.
5. “But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” – Former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld
The only consistent thread in Ontario politics over the past two years has been the complete lack of consistency or predictability. Expect the unexpected. Uncertainty calls for good planning; stakeholders should not remain complacent and should engage with all three parties.
While there are no guarantees as to when the government will fall, it would take a significant shift in power relations between the three parties for the Liberal government to call an early election or for either opposition party to support another Liberal Budget. (The first scheduled confidence motion – on which the government could potentially fall – will most likely not occur until Budget 2014 in the early spring.)
The most advisable path in a time of political posturing, uncertainty, and inaction is not to disengage, but to engage more broadly: through meetings, participation in policy discussions and submissions, and traditional and digital grassroots advocacy – across the political spectrum. These efforts can influence the issues and policies that will shape platforms and the examples used to bolster the policies in the platforms. Outreach to the civil service and government/ party influencers now can have an impact on policy direction leading up to and following a general election. In addition, a change in government can mean that the private member’s bills and opposition day motions that haven’t passed in the last 10 years could easily become government policy. The time to lay foundations for the coming months and years and to increase the likelihood of success is now.