FAKE NEWS – For a couple of hours on Thursday morning, Ontario was awash in frenzied speculation that a BIG announcement was imminent – A snap election? Premier Kathleen Wynne stepping down? Proroguing the Legislature? A game-changing policy? – but it turns out the fuss was over little more than a pep talk. Such is the high-anxiety in Ontario in these pre-election days that word of Liberal cabinet and caucus meetings, along with a live-streamed speech by Wynne, set tongues wagging. In the end it was all just a scene-setter for the pending fall legislative session, with Wynne basically reiterating her government’s policy strategies and other rah-rah rhetoric aimed at pumping up Liberal troops. Of course, the messaging was also designed for a broader online audience, which, thanks to the frenzied chatter, was no doubt larger than it would otherwise have been.
GET OUT OF TOWN! –Because of the minority government abbreviated in 2014, Ontario’s provincial and municipal elections are now on the same cycle, with politicians at both levels going to the polls in the same year. The impending dual 2018 campaigns naturally create some uncomfortable jockeying, as was evident at this week’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual conference in Ottawa. Although the meeting is for city and town representatives – minus those from Toronto, which opted out of AMO some years ago – Queen’s Park always has a major presence at the event, as the party leaders, plus large contingents from each of their caucuses, pay a visit. This year all three found themselves on the defensive, courtesy of AMO President Lynn Dollin throwing down the gauntlet from the start, using her intro speech to float the idea of a 1% hike in the provincial portion of the HST – with the extra $2.5 billion it would generate being earmarked specifically for municipal infrastructure. Wynne offered a terse, “It’s not something we’re going to look at,” while PC Leader Patrick Brown and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath were equally firm in nixing even considering the idea. But this was just the first salvo, setting the stage for months of municipalities pleading for more money – or at least the tools to raise it themselves – and threatening to blame Queen’s Park if they have to increase property taxes to meet budget needs. Given that provincial reps will face the electorate first – the Ontario election is in June, the municipal vote in October – the pressure will be on party strategists to come up with platform policies to blunt local complaints.
WAGE WAR – Liberal labour reform proposals, specifically plans to increase the minimum wage to $15/hr, continue to be a major point of contention this summer – which, despite the heated rhetoric, may suit the Liberals just fine. Some pundits surmised in the spring that the legislation was designed to create exactly the debate that is now underway, on the assumption that Liberal research would have told them they have the majority of public support. Opposition from the business community was also a given, and if indeed this was factored into Liberal calculations, all is going according to script. This week a group of businesses led by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce – calling itself the Keep Ontario Working Coalition – released a study concluding that the minimum wage hike will put 185,000 jobs at risk. “Making $15 an hour is great, but only if you have a job,” Chamber spokesman Karl Baldauf intoned, warning that “the unintended consequences are alarming.” Montreal-based grocery giant Metro also chimed in, with CEO Eric La Fleche cautioning that, “over time, if structural costs go up, that could have an inflationary impact” on prices. Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn was ready to take the cue, calling the coalition study “just one in a long list,” while pointing to research by other economists concluding that the wage hike would be net positive. In a statement, Flynn acknowledged the concerns of the business community, and repeated Wynne’s promise to find ways to ease the impact of the wage hike and keep Ontario businesses competitive. But he added an emphatic, “That being said, we will not back down from our plan to bring fairness to Ontarians.”
Meanwhile, Brown and Horwath have been unavoidably entangled in this net, respectively criticizing the labour reforms as moving too fast and not going far enough. Again, conspiracy theorists see this as by Liberal design: Horwath is at risk of being outflanked on the left by the LIBs, a scenario that contributed to her relatively poor showing in the 2014 election; Brown, by not outright vowing to repeal the legislation, has incurred the wrath of hard-right conservatives, who have added it to their list of grievances alongside beefs about Brown’s stance on a carbon tax and the sex-ed curriculum. Whether any of this can overcome Wynne’s staggering unpopularity remains to be seen, but at this point it appears to be the wedge issue the Liberals want it to be.
O’ER THE RAMPARTS WE WATCH – Events south of the border continue to reverberate northward, and all Ontario parties are on high alert as to how the American experiences might impact on the psyche of voters here. Premier Wynne was quick out of the gate in response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, tweeting, “Neo-Nazis and white supremacists don’t belong in the streets. Hate knows no borders and we must stand on guard against its spread.” Brown, not about to let himself get lumped in with the American right-wingers, also took to Twitter, posting, “Hate in any form is unacceptable. The white supremacy & racism leading to #Charlottesville is abhorrent. Thoughts are with the victims.” Horwath added a similar message, tweeting, “Horrified by the images from #Charlottesville. We all have a role to play in uniting against racism, hate and bigotry.” Those responses were no-brainers, but as the Donald Trump presidency moves forward, politicos on this side of the border will no doubt have their antennae up for the undercurrents that got him elected – and we may see more nuanced reactions. In the near term, it will be interesting to see if the Ontario parties diverge in their views on the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations that got underway this week.
BRANT SPANKING NEW – In what could be considered a microcosm for the province – at least, the Liberals hope so – a riding that was thought to be a sure-thing for the PCs is suddenly not so certain. Brantford-Brant has been Liberal since 1999, held by Speaker Dave Levac. He announced his retirement earlier this year and the Tories have been very upbeat about taking it back, espousing a narrative that it was a Levac riding rather than a Liberal riding. The PC nomination contest this spring was the biggest show they have ever put on in Brantford-Brant, with three nominees selling more than 1,300 memberships (of whom about 800 came out to vote in the nomination). Will Bouma, a County Councillor and optometrist from rural St. George, outpaced his rivals to win the prize, and was essentially anointed as the riding’s next MPP. But hold on. Last Saturday the Liberals held their nomination. They also had a hotly contested race, and they sold almost as many memberships as the Tories had earlier this year, with a turnout of 700 for the vote. Retirement home administrator Ruby Toor won the Liberal nod, setting up an intriguing showdown of a rural social conservative versus an urban South Asian woman.
ACT-IVISM — A group of Hamilton film enthusiasts are working to save and restore an historic theatre in the city’s west end, and the first person they turned to to help build public support and generate donations was Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin. The campaign is asking prominent Hamiltonians to “build some magic” by uttering movie lines in short videos posted to the Westdale Cinema Group’s Facebook page. Given McMeekin’s surprise announcement last week that he would seek re-election in June 2018 — amid rampant speculation that he was going to retire from public life — the veteran local and provincial politician donned dark sunglasses to utter the line made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator: “I’ll be back.”
FOR THE RECORD
“There are billions available when there’s trouble or there’s a Liberal scandal, and they have nothing for what, in the big picture, is [one of] the backbones of our economy.”
PC MPP Jim Wilson, exhorting the government to help farmers cope with an unusually wet summer – exacerbating last year’s near drought. Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal responded that it’s “too soon to determine the full impact this year’s unpredictable weather will have on crops across the province” and that he will keep “monitoring this situation and recognize the stress that severe weather events cause for our farm families.”
“I’m doing to do what I can to get rid of the Liberal government in Ontario.”
Former PC MPP Bob Runciman, who retired from the Senate when he hit his 75th birthday last week, vowing to stay involved in provincial politics. In his 29-year career at Queen’s Park, Runciman earned the nickname “Mad Dog” and apparently is still as partisan as ever.
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