LIVES IN THE BALANCE – Whenever pollsters ask what issues most influence voting decisions, the economy and fiscal management are almost always at or near the top. We shall see if this is indeed a key factor in what happens in the 2018 Ontario election; as of right now Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals would seem to have the economic wind at their back. That’s what the numbers suggest, with steady job growth for the better part of two years and the provincial budget on the verge of being balanced. Given voters’ appetite for economic prudence – and well aware that failing in this regard is a sure ticket to Opposition status – Finance Minister Charles Sousa was emphatic again this week that Ontario will be in the black come this spring’s budget. In releasing the province’s third-quarter finances, Sousa noted that the deficit for the current fiscal year is down to $1.9 billion – a healthy improvement over the $4.3 billion shortfall projected last spring – thanks to GDP growth of 0.7%. Sousa gushed that Ontario’s growth rate outpaced the rest of Canada and all G7 countries, but he was careful not to sound too Pollyannaish. “At the same time, people’s experiences of this growth are uneven, and too many are not feeling better off,” Sousa cautioned. Naturally, the Opposition parties amplified that theme – their electoral hopes at least partly resting on voters not buying the Liberals’ good stewardship narrative. “The real deficit is there and it’s baked in,” sniped PC Finance Critic Vic Fedeli, decrying an “artificial balance” achieved only through one-time cash infusions like the sale of Hydro One.
THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONNECT – Even if the LIBs can convince voters they’re got the province’s finances in hand, they are on much shakier ground when it comes to electricity costs – and that’s the issue the Opposition parties are counting on to really drive votes. It dominated Question Period as the House resumed this week, with PC Leader Patrick Brown and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath taking turns bashing the Liberals for double-digit increases on most hydro bills. (Interestingly, Wynne chose to field most of the questions herself, only occasionally deferring to Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault.) A new line of attack also opened up, as both Opposition parties raged about utility companies disconnecting electricity and gas to consumers who are behind on their payments, even in the freezing cold. Legislation effectively banning that practice has been tabled, but as part of a much larger omnibus bill that is slowly working its way through the legislative process. Even though all three parties agreed on the need to ensure nobody gets cut off right now, of course there was much dispute over who would get credit for the policy. PC MPP Todd Smith got the ball rolling with a private member’s bill, the cleverly titled Stopping Electricity Disconnections in the Winter Act, which unanimously passed First Reading but was stymied when Smith tried to get it through Second and Third Readings immediately. The next day, Thibeault – who had previously said he’d prefer utilities to agree voluntarily – introduced government legislation. It passed quickly with no debate – in the House. Outside, both Opposition parties blasted the Liberals for not acting sooner. “We had virtually the exact same thing in the legislature yesterday morning, but if the Liberals needed to put their own stamp on it, then God bless,” Horwath needled, while Brown offered a more pointed, “Unfortunately, this comes after far too many families and seniors were forced to suffer in the cold without power because the Wynne Liberals dragged their feet and played political games.”
OFF TO THE RACISM – Brown astutely dodged a potentially damaging issue for himself, when he said he would unequivocally endorse an anti-Islamophobia motion up for debate this week. Ottawa-Vanier Liberal Nathalie Des Rosiers tabled the motion before Christmas, and the Liberals were quite happy to expedite it in light of controversy over a similar motion in Ottawa. (Ostensibly the provincial motion was given more urgency in the wake of the shooting at a Quebec City mosque, but the political subtext added some extra oomph.) Several Conservative MPs have opposed the federal motion, arguing that the Islamophobia reference should be taken out and the motion broadened to a more general anti-racism message. Brown, sensing the trap laid for him, made it clear he has no problem with the I-word. “I think it’s pretty straightforward to condemn any form of hate,” Brown told reporters Tuesday morning. “In terms of Islamophobia, it is real.” Des Rosiers’ motion passed unanimously.
QUIRK OF FATE – Whatever success Brown may be having in presenting a more moderate face for his party, his internal tribulations aren’t over. It looks like he’s going to be forced to choose sides as his newest caucus member, teenager Sam Oosterhoff, faces a challenge for the nomination to run in 2018. And not just any challenge – Niagara Regional Councillor and Ontario PC Party Vice-President Tony Quirk has announced plans to face-off against Oosterhoff in the newly created riding of Niagara West (which is being split off from Oosterhoff’s current seat of Niagara West-Glanbrook). Quirk lost the nomination to Oosterhoff in last fall’s by-election to replace former party leader Tim Hudak, but then buried the hatchet and co-chaired Oosterhoff’s by-election campaign. Now he’s apparently dug up the hatchet, portraying Oosterhoff as too inexperienced. “Sam comes from a very insular group within the riding, he has no elected experience,” Quirk told the Toronto Star’s QP Briefing. “He hasn’t really seen the rest of the world, he hasn’t really seen the other sides of issues. So he approaches things with the blind faith of a child, and that’s the problem that you have to take into account when you are someone who attends church – faith is important, blind faith is dangerous.” Both Quirk and Oosterhoff describe themselves as Social Conservatives, so it’s not an ideological fight. But it sure got personal in a hurry, with Oosterhoff firing back, “You should be careful to throw stones when you’re in a glass cage. It’s easy for someone to say that you shouldn’t be in cabinet, but when you can’t even win a nomination, then I wouldn’t be speaking so loudly and so boldly.”
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter introduced Bill 92, the School Boards Collective Bargaining Amendment Act, to enhance the two-tiered model for collective bargaining in the education sector. Evidently the model is working, at least at the provincial level. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation tentatively agreed to a two-year contract extension this week. If that deal and similar extensions for other education sector unions are ratified, the prospect of contentious education negotiations will be off the table until after the next election.
Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault introduced Bill 95, the Protecting Vulnerable Energy Consumers Act, to prohibit utility companies from disconnecting gas or power from homes during the winter. With all-party support it quickly passed Third Reading and received Royal Assent.
Women’s Issues Minister Indira Nadoo-Harris introduced Bill 96, the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, to increase protection for survivors and those at risk of human trafficking, including allowing individuals to apply for restraining orders and making it easier for survivors to get compensation from those who trafficked them.
Speaker Dave Levac acknowledged that PC MPP Julia Munro is now the longest-serving female MPP in the history of the Ontario Legislature. First elected in June 1995, Munro is at 21 years, eight months and 18 days, and counting.
The Legislature’s new Sergeant-at-Arms is also female – the first to hold that post. In formally welcoming Jacquelyn Gordon on Tuesday, Levac quipped, “I would respectfully remind the members and suggest to the members that you wont mess with her any more than you would have messed with Dennis.” Dennis Clark retired as Sergeant-at-Arms after 19 years. Gordon previously spent 34 years with the Halton Regional Police Service.
It was fitting that Gordon and Munro were acknowledged Tuesday, coinciding with delegates from Equal Voice’s “Daughters of the Vote” program meeting at Queen’s Park.
FOR THE RECORD
“Wynne is continuing to channel Donald Trump and swat down all dissent. She is simply not respecting any limits on her power. Instead of listening to the people’s watchdogs, she only pays attention to her wealthy friends, bankers like Ed Clark and the investors who are getting rich off of privatization.”
OPSEU President “Smokey” Thomas, in his Toronto Sun column, taking his anti-Liberal rhetoric to new heights – likening Premier Kathleen Wynne to U.S. President Donald Trump is a first – as he sides squarely with the Auditor General in the accounting dispute over public sector pension surpluses. Thomas then went even further, warning, “If nobody stands up to Wynne, I’m afraid her next move could be to actually steal our pension money, giving her more cash for overpaid consultants and Sunshine List executives.”
“The OPSEU pension plan, which is jointly sponsored by OPSEU and the province, clearly states that no amount of the surplus shall be paid out of the plan to either sponsor. Simply put, the province does not have the ability to make any withdrawals from the plan. I trust that you are reassured by this news.”
Treasury Board President Liz Sandals, in an open memo to Thomas politely, if somewhat sarcastically, clarifying the rules around pension surpluses.
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