WINTER WONDER – Ontario’s Legislature has gone into its winter hibernation, rising for the two-month recess on schedule yesterday. Before saying their good-byes, the Liberal majority passed five government bills into law (see In The House, below), leaving only two on the Order Paper – including one introduced just before the break. That dearth of outstanding legislation is fuelling speculation Premier Kathleen Wynne could prorogue the House. But regardless of whether there’s a Throne Speech in the spring or a continuation of the current session (which is slated to resume on February 20, right after Family Day), no one is under the delusion it will have much to do with lawmaking. With a provincial election on tap for June 7, and the writ period starting a month before that, any assembly in the spring will be purely about prepping for the campaign.
RESEARCH HIGH AND LOW – As the political parties gear up for the election, so too will polling firms, with pre-election periods traditionally creating big demand for prognostications. What they will be looking for is shifts in voter opinion, which lately have been virtually non-existent. There is some discrepancy between the findings of different pollsters (attributed largely to variances in their respective methodology) but near uniformity from survey to survey within each firm. Forum Research, for instance, keeps pegging the Tories with a substantial lead in popular support, while Campaign Research habitually finds a closer race. In the latter’s latest results, Wynne’s Liberals and Patrick Brown’s PCs are in a dead heat, with the LIBs at 35% support (up three points from a month ago) and the Tories at 34% (down by one). According to Campaign Research, Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats are also down a point to 23%, while the Green Party stays on the margins with single-digit support (7%, down from 9%). This poll was conducted just after Brown launched his People’s Guarantee platform which, like everything else, evidently didn’t move the needle.
SORRY NOT SORRY – Wynne and Brown are now fully embroiled in a game of legal/political chicken, escalating the feud over Brown’s comments around Wynne testifying at the Sudbury bribery trial earlier this year. This week her lawyers filed a statement of claim seeking $100,000 in damages, peppered with imputations of “deliberate, malicious conduct,” “an ongoing campaign engineered by the defendant and others to harm the plaintiff’s reputation,” “egregious misconduct in publishing statements that he knew to be false” and “high-handed and oppressive conduct in stating to media and directly to the world at large that the plaintiff’s complaints were baseless and would be ignored.” All of this stems from Brown characterizing Wynne as herself being on trial, and his refusal to retract it – a defiance that continues in the face of the lawsuit. Wynne made it clear this is more political than legal – “This whole situation could be resolved with a simple apology if Patrick Brown just apologized for what everyone has acknowledged was an untrue statement,” she dangled – but Brown batted that away, calling the lawsuit “diversion tactics” and offering a terse, “The only person who should be apologizing is Kathleen Wynne for these stunts, these theatrics.” As they dig in, both sides are painting themselves into corners, which could be perilous in the campaign ahead. Wynne risks being seen as thin-skinned and heavy-handed (especially in light of a similar lawsuit against Brown’s predecessor Tim Hudak that was quietly settled after Wynne trounced him in the 2014 election), while Brown could come across as stubborn and lacking political sense for inflaming a situation that could have been easily resolved.
SHORT SIGHTED – Another grudge match, between the Liberals and Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, also took a new turn this week, when the Financial Accountability Officer appeared to side with Lysyk. J. David Wake projected a $4-billion deficit in 2017-18, contrary to Liberal claims of a balanced budget, citing the difference between Lysyk’s accounting methods and the government’s as creating “a significant and growing gap between the fiscal outcomes projected by the FAO and the province.” Ironically, the FAO was created by the Liberals in the wake of the alleged “hidden deficit” left by the Tories when the LIBs took power in 2003, ostensibly to provide an objective assessment of the province’s finances – which the LIBs now seem content to ignore. With Lysyk no longer willing to count public sector pension holdings as government assets (which was acceptable until last year), next spring’s Budget figures are somewhat cloudy. Whether voters much care about deficits is questionable – it rarely seems to make much difference in elections – and Wynne is sticking to her guns. “[The FAO] confirmed that under the accounting presentation that we’ve been using for the last 16 years, the budget is balanced, and in fact, there’s a small surplus for 2017-18,” Wynne told the Legislature. “So the report actually shows that our plan is working.”
IN THE HOUSE
Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Eleanor McMahon introduced Bill 193, Rowan’s Law (Concussion Safety), to improve concussion safety for amateur and school athletes. Named in honour of Rowan Stringer, the 17-year-old rugby player whose death resulted from multiple concussions, the legislation would also establish the last Wednesday in September as “Rowan’s Law Day.”
As the fall session wrapped up, five government bills passed Third Reading and received Royal Assent: Bill 139, replacing the Ontario Municipal Board; Bill 160, increasing transparency in health care business dealings; Bill 166, revamping rules around major purchases and event ticket scalping; Bill 174, regulating recreational marijuana; and Bill 177, implementing Budget measures.
A handful of private member’s bills also passed before the House rose. Nothing earth-shaking – mostly symbolic proclamations like Lebanese Heritage Month and Ontario Craft Beer Week.
“Abuses by the insiders at these electricity companies, including at the publicly owned Ontario Power Generation, appear to be flagrant, systemic and repeated … [They are] abuses so egregious that a second look by law enforcement is only prudent.”
PC Energy Critic Todd Smith, in a letter to the OPP calling for a police investigation into the ineligible expenses paid by power companies, which were flagged by the Auditor General.
“If you are going to go out of business on the backs of your employees because you can’t afford to pay them this, then perhaps you should reassess your business plan, and reassess whether you should be an employer at all.”
Barrie Liberal MPP Ann Hoggarth, defending the Liberals’ increase to the minimum wage with a quote that has the Tories demanding an apology, calling it insensitive to struggling businesses.
“People are starting to be very afraid to drive on the Trans-Canada. To the towns and the people, the road is starting to be seen as a death trap, and I don’t say that lightly … We don’t have subways. We don’t have passenger trains. We don’t have LRTs. We have one road, and it needs to be safe.”
NDP MPP John Vanthof, calling for better highway maintenance after the latest fatal truck accident on Highway 11 near Temagami. He cited an Ontario Road Safety Report that concluded the occupants of a vehicle registered in Timiskaming are four times more likely to die on a provincial highway than anywhere else in Ontario.
Enterprise is a leading Canadian public affairs firm with expertise in government relations, digital and public relations. Our public affairs agency has offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara and Six Nations.