GET WELL – Michael Gravelle is universally liked around Queen’s Park, so the wave of well wishes that came his way this week were genuine, after he announced he is temporarily stepping aside from cabinet to deal with depression. Gravelle explained on Facebook that he has been “struggling with a feeling of uneasiness,” for a while. “It has become clear to me that it will take some time, effort, treatment and understanding to properly address this illness.” Gravelle is no stranger to health battles, having fought cancer five years ago. His affability and professionalism earned him plenty of support back then, and again now. As Premier Kathleen Wynne noted, “Everyone at Queen’s Park will have him in their thoughts and will be rooting for him.” Wynne praised Gravelle’s decision – “It takes great courage to speak publicly about mental health challenges,” she said in a statement. “I want to wish Michael Gravelle a speedy and complete recovery” – and assigned Bill Mauro to take on Gravelle’s Northern Development and Mines portfolio in addition to his own Natural Resources and Forestry ministry. Gravelle assured constituents in his Thunder Bay–Superior North riding that his office staff will continue to take care of local issues, but he himself will stay on the sidelines. “While I appreciate the importance of talking openly about mental health, in the very near term I hope it is understandable that I would like to maintain my privacy,” he wrote.
ORDER HERE – For the rest of the province’s MPPs, it’s back to parliamentary business next Tuesday. Following the Family Day holiday Monday (Thank You, Dalton McGuinty – this mid-February break is one part of his legacy most Ontarians think fondly of), the House resumes for its spring sitting. When last they assembled, before Christmas, there were eight outstanding government bills on the Order Paper (see Status of Government Bills), as well as several dozen private member’s bills. New legislation introduced over the coming months will have an extra layer of meaning, as it points to priorities and planks for the 2018 election – which will be exactly one year away when the spring session ends on June 1.
SURPLUSES AND MINUSES – Winning a battle against a non-partisan watchdog might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, but that’s where the Liberals find themselves right now. They were irate when Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk ruled that surpluses from government-sponsored pension plans can’t be counted as assets – which would have made the provincial deficit much higher than reported and threatened the balanced budget central to the LIBs’ re-election hopes. So Wynne hired an independent panel of accounting experts, who reported this week that they agree the surpluses should in fact be considered assets. Even if Lysyk acquiesces to the expert panel, the Liberals surely won’t gloat about it, because she still carries a lot of clout. But the feud does raise some uneasy questions about government oversight authorities. With former Ombudsman André Marin – who himself had a much-publicized run-in with the government then subsequently ran for the Tories – now writing a Postmedia column that regularly tears a strip off the Liberals, along with Lysyk’s credibility taking a hit, their once-untouchable offices are facing some previously unheard-of scrutiny. As Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn put it, “An auditor general can enjoy godlike legitimacy in Canada. But independence isn’t infallibility — not when the numbers don’t add up.”
HAIL TO THE (NEW) CHIEF – PC Leader Patrick Brown didn’t wait long to land on a new Chief of Staff, naming Alykhan Velshi to run his office less than a week after Nick Pappalardo resigned for family reasons. Velshi is well known in Conservative political circles, as co-founder of Ethical Oil and a former senior advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney. Insiders say one of Brown and Velshi’s immediate priorities is shoring up relations with former PC Leader and now Toronto Mayor John Tory. Cracks in that relationship were evident when Brown publicly opposed Tory’s push for tolls on Toronto expressways. But when Wynne officially scotched the tolling plan, Brown’s team saw an opening to repair the rift. His Deputy Chief of Staff and a senior policy advisor both attended Tory’s speech to the Empire Club this week. However, at the same time, former Toronto Councillor and noted Brown ally Doug Ford was again making noises about running against Tory for the mayoralty, exacerbating the complex web of allegiances and feuds Brown will have to navigate.
SCARBERIAN TIGER –This week’s municipal by-election in Scarborough – necessitated by Raymond Cho’s ascendency to provincial MPP – had some intriguing ramifications for Queen’s Park. Primarily, it gives hope to New Democrats, who haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years, as their candidate won in a landslide. Although civic elections are technically non-partisan, candidates are known to have parties behind them, as was the case with the NDP-backed Neethan Shan. Shan was the NDP candidate in last year’s provincial by-election, finishing third, but was victorious at the city level on Monday, garnering more than 45% of the votes. That was way ahead of third-place finisher Hratch Aynedjian, who had been Cho’s executive assistant when he was a city councillor. It’s something of a tradition for staff to run when their boss moves on, and often it works. But not for Aynedjian, who not only had PC support but Liberal credentials as well, having worked on campaigns for Liberal cabinet minister Brad Duguid and others.
THE NEW BLACK – One of the first orders of business when the House fires up next week will be to celebrate Black History Month – the first time February has had that official designation in Ontario. It’s been recognized federally for 20 years, but was only proclaimed in the province last year. Amid the ongoing controversy around the Black Lives Matter movement, this is seen as a priority issue for Wynne’s Liberals – hence the creation of the Anti-Racism Secretariat, overseen by Children and Youth Services Minister Michael Coteau. In addition to speeches in the House, a reception will be held at Queen’s Park, seen as a must-attend event by many politicos.
RUMOURS AND RUMBLINGS
IS THAT A FACT?
Talking points distributed to the faithful (or at least those signed up as supporters) often provide a window into a party’s strategic thinking. Right now it appears the Liberals are very much thinking about the “alternative facts” universe created by the U.S. presidential campaign. Calculating that Ontario voters will be repelled by the frenzy of misinformation and “fake news” that has overwhelmed political discourse stateside, the LIBs have launched a series of missives headlined “Facts Still Matter.” Mostly they take aim at Brown, dissecting every sentence of his speeches and offering counterpoints. (Some might call those “alternative facts,” but never mind.) A sampling: “He said: ‘We want to make sure that historic infrastructure 130 billion is actually spent on infrastructure not spent simply on, on promises, on press releases.’ Fact: Cost of the new GO station in Richmond Hill: $22 million, cost of the press release announcing it was open: $0, cost of catching Patrick Brown making up facts: priceless.” It’s not just Brown in the Liberal fact-checking sights. They’ve also branched out into similar vetting services for a speech by PC Finance Critic Vic Fedeli and an op-ed column by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Surely it won’t be long before the others parties follow suit, creating an “are-too-are-not” melee that could make the U.S. campaign look professorial.
FOR THE RECORD
“I know such acknowledgement and the money which must accompany it aren’t popular outside the city but Ontario’s golden goose must be nurtured, not ignored if Ontario as a whole is to prosper.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory, during an Empire Club speech, arguing that resentment of Toronto shouldn’t impact on Queen’s Park decisions about funding for the city. Later in the week Tory bemoaned the “prehistoric handcuffs” that prevent municipalities from making decisions without approval from senior levels of government.
“Because I was considered stylish, with these colourful turbans and well-cut suits and showing myself as a confident person, I could use that as a tool to talk about things like unfairness, injustice, poverty, and inequality in the public sphere … A beard and a turban sometimes conjure up negative associations, but, if you see someone with a lime-coloured, bright orange or pink turban, it disarms people’s stereotypical notions of this image and it disarms people from those stereotypes.”
NDP Deputy Leader Jagmeet Singh, recently profiled by GQ. The feature noted, “rumour has it that Singh will soon make the jump into federal politics and run for leadership of the left-wing New Democratic Party of Canada,” but while Singh admits he’s considering it, he insists he hasn’t decided yet.
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