PATH TIME – At some point in the next few weeks, Finance Minister Charles Sousa will be in the spotlight delivering the 2017-18 provincial Budget. Today he has something of a dress rehearsal with a major speech to the Empire Club of Canada. Sousa is expected to announce a date for the Budget (April 27 is seen as most probable) and to offer at least a preview of some of its content. Aside from serving as a Budget scene-setter, however, the speech is primarily a chance to test-drive Liberal re-election messaging. Indeed, Sousa’s topic is billed as “The Path to Balance,” so presumably much of the address will actually be backward looking – a “how we got here” recitation of Liberal initiatives to boost the economy and make government more efficient, enabling the deficit to be eliminated. Languishing in the polls as they are, the LIBs desperately need voters to give them credit for whatever economic success Ontario is experiencing, and both the Empire Club event and the Budget it tees up will heavily reinforce that narrative.
BORDER PATROL – Faced with flagging popularity at home, Premier Kathleen Wynne has spent much of her time lately focused beyond Ontario’s borders – again in the hopes that voters here will appreciate the ensuing benefits. It can be a risky strategy – many an Ontario Premier has been pilloried for being consumed by national affairs, while Prime Ministers have often lost support for cozying up to the U.S. But Wynne obviously sees a growing trend toward protectionism (embodied by U.S. President Donald Trump) as a legitimate threat to Ontario’s export-driven economy. So far she seems to be emerging victorious on the non-domestic front, as evidenced by developments in the past week:
Ontario’s lobbying efforts with New York representatives paid off when “Buy American” provisions in the state budget were abandoned at the last minute. Wynne, who hadn’t been able to connect directly with Governor Andrew Cuomo, admitted that her cabinet had approved reciprocal legislation – in essence declaring a trade war – to be introduced if the protectionist measures had gone through. With some $30 billion in trade at stake – not to mention the potential domino effect of other states followed suit – there was a big “whew” at Queen’s Park when New York kept its economic channels open. “[We] share more than a border … This partnership is crucial to both of our economies,” Wynne said. “Protectionist policies like ‘Buy American’ put that relationship and those jobs and businesses at serious risk.”
While she couldn’t get an audience with Cuomo, Wynne has reportedly been well received by his counterparts in nearly a dozen other states, including a meeting this week with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. That follows chats with the Governors of nearby Ohio, Michigan, Vermont, Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as such far-flung states as Colorado, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. All of this is necessitated by anxiety around the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump promised to dismantle during his campaign for the presidency. “It is an uncertain time, there’s no doubt about that,” Wynne explained of her stateside relationship building. “It’s very important that, as Premier, I play very close attention to, and put resources into … protection of our interests – not protection of our border, but protection of our interests.”
On this side of the 49th Parallel, Wynne could also claim victory in completing a new Canadian Free Trade Agreement. Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid was her point person on that, and he gushed that it’s “the most ambitious internal or external free trade agreement that this country has ever had.” While some inter-provincial trade provisions still need to be worked out – booze being one of them – the new deal covers nearly every economic sector, including some that don’t exist yet, like legal marijuana sales. “With technology disruption changing our world, we need trade agreements that apply to not only the sectors that we know of today, but new and evolving sectors,” Duguid emphasized, noting that the new rules will automatically apply to emerging areas of the economy. The CFTA is also touted as making Canada the first country in the world to have a binding process to harmonize trade regulations across sub-national jurisdictions.
HOUSE NOTES – Premier Wynne did focus on some purely domestic business this week, but even that had jurisdictional implications. Wynne gathered a “summit” of Greater Toronto mayors and regional chairs, whose municipalities are technically under provincial control but who wield tremendous influence over their mutual constituents. Like Wynne, municipal representatives are starting to shift into re-election mode – they head to the polls in the fall of 2018, a few months after the June provincial vote – and the last thing she needs is a bunch of local campaigners essentially running “against” her even if they’re at different levels. Hence the summit, to keep them informed of – and ideally on side with – Queen’s Park policies. High on the priority list for the Toronto-area meeting – much more so than in other parts of the province – was runaway housing prices. Wynne and Sousa have repeatedly promised a “comprehensive package” of measures in the impending Budget to not only calm the overheated market but also to address a chronic shortage of social housing. Reinforcing the I-feel-your-pain sentiment central to Wynne’s effort at rehabilitating her image, she intoned, “Reducing the pressure felt by Ontarians, as well as providing more affordable options for people to choose from, is a priority for us and we’re serious about taking action.”
IN THE HOUSE
No new government legislation was introduced.
Bill 59, updating rules around home inspections, door-to-door sales and payday loans, passed Third Reading unanimously.
The Legislature will be dark next week, following the Easter long weekend. MPPs will be back in the House April 24, sitting for a month until their next Constituency Week break after the May long weekend.
FOR THE RECORD
“The mayor cannot simply brush aside billions of dollars of investments in transit, housing, roads, hospitals and schools, as ‘talking points.’”
Finance Minister Charles Sousa, taking exception to Toronto Mayor John Tory’s letter to City councillors urging them to pressure MPPs for more infrastructure cash in the upcoming provincial budget.
“If we think the refugee problem is difficult now, try imagining a quarter of a billion people escaping the countries experiencing the worst of the climate changes. It will happen.”
Ontario Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe, trying to raise public engagement on the urgency of climate change. Saxe commended the government for its environmental initiatives, but warned it needs to be more overt, fretting, “If the government doesn’t treat climate change as an emergency, then many people feel that they don’t need to, either.”
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