NEW CREW – When the Legislature resumes a month from now, the Liberals’ front benches will look dramatically different, thanks to this week’s cabinet shuffle. Deb Matthews – who had been Deputy Premier, a role that was not filled – Liz Sandals and Brad Duguid will vacate their front-row desks, while Natalie Des Rosiers, Daiene Vernile and Harinder Malhi move up from the backbenches. The latter trio had previously been Parliamentary Assistants, and the gaps they leave will likely trigger a PA shuffle as well. Similarly, both Opposition parties are expected to revamp their shadow cabinets in preparation for the spring session – itself a precursor to the election campaign that will officially start in May. Neither PC Leader Patrick Brown nor NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is facing a mass exodus from their respective caucuses – Julia Munro is the only PC MPP who has announced she isn’t seeking re-election, while two New Democrats, Sarah Campbell and Cindy Forster, are calling it quits after this term – but shuffling critic portfolios is an opportunity to make a statement about priorities and to boost the profiles of some members.
EX-PAT – On top of losing long-time caucus allies, Premier Kathleen Wynne bid farewell to another confidant this week, when she confirmed that Pat Sorbara won’t be running the Liberal election campaign. Wynne was delighted earlier this year when Sorbara was cleared of bribery charges, welcoming her back to party headquarters. Sorbara had been Wynne’s Deputy Chief of Staff but stepped aside when she was charged in connection with the 2015 Sudbury by-election. After being acquitted, it was assumed she would spearhead the Liberals’ re-election push. But apparently that didn’t work out, because in the year she was gone party staffers got used to working without her. “The team that stepped up while Pat was forced to deal with completely unfounded charges in Sudbury came together and gelled in the last several months,” Wynne said in a statement announcing that Sorbara is out. Insiders were less diplomatic, describing a personality clash – the take-no-prisoners Sorbara versus the more laid-back style of her successor Chad Walsh, with the team preferring Walsh.
Meanwhile, in a sort-of-related story, another trial involving former senior Liberal aides is expected to reach its conclusion today. Ontario Court Judge Timothy Lipson is scheduled to hand down his verdict in the trial of David Livingston and Laura Miller on charges of illegally destroying government documents. Depending on Lipson’s ruling, Wynne will either be celebrating judicial vindication (again) or trying to distance herself from events that happened before she moved into the Premier’s Office.
STANDINGS STILL – Roles may be changing around Queen’s Park, but recent polling results have been a model of consistency. Different polling firms are getting different views, but the two firms conducting and publishing regular surveys are seeing little variance month-over-month. Campaign Research has repeatedly reported a dead heat between the Liberals and PCs, and their latest results show exactly that: PCs with 35% support, Liberals at 34% and the NDP at 23%, almost identical to similar polls for months now. (Digging a little deeper, Campaign Research found 60% of respondents approving of the Liberals’ minimum wage increase, and 72% liking the new pharmacare program, which would seem to bode well for the LIBs. But as yet that hasn’t translated into a perceivable shift in voting intentions.) Forum Research has been equally steady in pegging the Tories with a big lead, which is once again the case, as Forum found PC support at 43% (up three points from a month ago), with the Liberals (unchanged at 24%) in third place, behind the NDP at 26% (down two). Pre-election polls are notoriously suspect in predicting what will actually happen in the campaign, but as Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn pointed out, they do impact on a party’s ability to attract support – which has certainly favoured Brown. “For all the limitations of polls in forecasting voter behaviour, they have a more predictable impact on donors and candidates,” Cohn wrote. “Brown’s strong polling numbers a year ago added an aura of inevitability and invincibility to the Tories as he personally led a fundraising campaign to retire the party’s multimillion-dollar debt.”
JOIN THE CLUB – Speaking of recruiting supporters, Brown boasted this week that his party has more than 200,000 paid-up members – a provincial record. Astonishingly, that’s double what their membership totalled when the Tories were in government in the early 2000s, and a 1,500% increase over the 12,000 they had after losing in 2014. Some of the recent bump in numbers has been the result of highly contested nominations (fuelled in large part, as noted above, by the expectation of a PC victory provincially), with multiple candidates in many ridings aggressively selling the memberships necessary for voting at the nomination meeting. A few of those new recruits may be disgruntled by their choice losing – particularly in ridings where there are accusations of shady voting procedures – but the massive membership is still an indication of a significant jump in grassroots engagement. While such exponential growth won’t necessarily apply to the broader electorate, the PC base is indisputably stronger. Given that the Liberals won a majority with roughly 1.8 million votes in 2014, one PC insider calculated, “If we get ten votes for every party member, we win a majority government.”
HAMMER THROW – Most Tories aren’t pinning much hope on winning in Hamilton, which has been a wasteland for them for decades. But they are banking on their candidate in Hamilton Centre – who is facing off against Horwath, making a PC breakthrough that much more of a longshot – to improve the party’s overall image. Dionne Duncan was acclaimed to carry the PC banner in Hamilton Centre, and she wasted no time praising Brown for recruiting diverse candidates. Duncan is of Guyanese descent, and is general manager of the Markham African Caribbean Canadian Association (although she lives in Mississauga and is moving to Hamilton – which adds a certain geographical diversity.) “Nobody went to them over the years. Nobody asked for their opinion,” she said of ethnic minorities. As a woman of colour she said she wants to “show the party has multiple backgrounds, different types of people. I’m glad the PC Party recognizes a face like mine. It’s different from the past. I too am the face of the party.”
MORE THAN A WOMAN – Horwath herself hasn’t been home in Hamilton much lately, as she continues to tour the province. In Sudbury this weekend, she will systematically tick off key campaign boxes: She’ll hold a press conference to rail about the state of health and long-term care; she’ll take part in a women’s march; she’ll speak at the Sudbury & District Labour Council’s 60th Anniversary Party, helping hand out “Working Class Heroes Awards”; and she’ll attend a Sudbury Wolves hockey game.
FOR THE RECORD
“This really comes as a shock to us though I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked given her penchant for privatization. Ed Clark – he’s the unappointed, unelected, de facto Premier of Ontario giving Kathleen Wynne advice…[He] scares the bejeebers out of me.”
OPSEU President Wayne “Smokey” Thomas, unimpressed by the nomination of Ed Clark, the former senior banker and business advisor to the Premier, as Chair of the LCBO.
“I’m getting tweets and all sorts of other correspondence from Conservative followers under the impression that their leader does not support this rise to the minimum wage. So you’ve got Tory MPPs saying they don’t support the increase; you’ve got the party saying it does support the increase; and you’ve got a party leader that appears to have dropped out of sight on this issue right now.”
Labour Minister Kevin Flynn, continuing to stir the political pot in the increasingly bitter rhetoric around the province’s minimum wage hike.
“There’s a reason why the Wynne Liberals are not trusted – they can’t tell the truth about the most basic facts.”
Ditto from Conservative MPP John Yakabuski, pointing out that the Tories only differ on the timing of the minimum wage increase.
“I think anybody, you or I, are building a house or doing a renovation, we try to get those costs agreed to up front. It seems this government negotiates completely backwards.”
PC MP Michael Harris, blasting the Liberals for beginning repairs on the Nipigon Bridge some 16 months before starting negotiations on what the cost of the repairs will be, and who will pay it.
“Political life is competitive, it’s all-encompassing and it’s partisan. It’s time to come back to, I think, building an inclusive community. But having said that, I’m not going anywhere and I said that when I left because there are a lot of social justice issues I’m going to be very active around, including some bills of mine that did not get passed.”
Ex-NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, settling in to her new/old job as minister at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church.
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