I TOLL YA SO – “He’ll get the money, we’ll get the blame.” That, from an unnamed Liberal MPP quoted in the Toronto Star, neatly sums up the impetus behind the pending announcement that the province will kibosh proposed road tolls championed by Toronto Mayor John Tory. Premier Kathleen Wynne is scheduled to officially nix the idea of tolls on the heavily-travelled Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway – approved by Toronto City Council but requiring provincial support – this morning. Instead, she is expected to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to pay for the transit improvements Tory wanted the tolls to bankroll. Tory is due to speak to the media later today, and his performance will be dissected for clues as to whether this decision creates a rift in his up-until-now good relationship with Wynne, as well as how it affects his relationship with PC Leader Patrick Brown, who openly opposed the tolling plan. From a political perspective, Tory was taking less of a risk than Wynne: His re-election requires only getting votes from 416ers in Toronto, while Wynne’s Liberals need to also woo the 905 suburbanites surrounding the city, who make up a large segment of motorists using the DVP and Gardiner. The above quote, notably, is from a Liberal MPP from the 905. Word is Wynne faced a near-revolt at recent caucus and cabinet meetings, forcing the U-turn on supporting tolls.
TRUMPED UP – Week One of Donald Trump’s U.S. presidency saw him continue to utterly dominate conversation – in the news and commentary, on social media, in boardrooms, at water-coolers, and yes, in the halls of Queen’s Park. Events stateside have practical implications for Ontario, to the point that Premier Wynne felt compelled to address Trump’s protectionist stance during a tour of Ontario colleges and universities, diverting from her promotion of free tuition and other Liberal post-secondary goodies. “We are obviously paying very close attention to what’s happening south of the border,” Wynne commented during a stop at Kitchener’s Conestoga College. “Ontario’s economy is really integrated into the American economy … but it works both ways.” Beyond the economic repercussions, though, it’s the philosophical/political impacts of the Trump phenomenon that is weighing heavily on Queen’s Park minds – what with an election looming in less than 18 months. Among the considerations to ponder:
Will Trump’s antics – the media baiting, the over-the-top rhetoric, the gleeful political incorrectness – send Ontarians scurrying for the comfort of the familiar? Or is the seam of anti-establishment resentment that propelled Trump to the White House lurking in the Ontario electorate?
This is especially daunting for Brown, whose Tories have long struggled to find balance between the moderate and the radical. But it’s also a conundrum for Wynne, who has to decide whether to keep bashing Trump, which could exacerbate economic tensions and potentially backfire if enough Ontario voters secretly like where he’s going. And can NDP Leader Andrea Horwath find a place in the discourse, maybe even looking to arch-Democrat Bernie Saunders for inspiration?
Last Saturday’s Women’s March obviously struck a nerve in Ontario – with busloads of demonstrators going to Washington while tens of thousands participated in their own larger-than-expected protest at Queen’s Park. Presumably this sentiment would favour Wynne, but the question is whether it can overcome concerns around hydro rates and other issues that have ravaged her popularity.
“Alternative facts,” the phrase coined by a Trump adviser, sent a chill through political strategists. If it turns out that a majority of voters do not indeed care for fact-checking – as long as a stated opinion reinforces their own – the rules of engagement are now very different. Election campaigns have always walked a fine line between truth and propaganda, and that line is suddenly very blurry.
Many are wondering how long Trump can keep dwarfing all other issues. But it has been pointed out that the Rob Ford circus, a similarly all-consuming media frenzy, continued the entire time he was Mayor of Toronto – albeit without the global, finger-on-the-button implications.
KEVIN CAN’T WAIT – Trump’s spectre certainly hung over this week’s unprecedented Facebook exchange between Wynne and federal Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary. It clearly didn’t happen on a whim, as the parallels between O’Leary and Trump – rich businessman, TV personality, brash right-winger – gave Wynne an obvious target for anti-Trump (read: anti-Brown) positioning on this side of the border. Wynne posted an open letter to O’Leary – knowing it would quickly grab attention – challenging his assertions about Michigan auto sector investments. “I know that responding to you with such facts runs the risk of missing the point. On American game shows and reality TV, no one expects their words to be taken literally — or even seriously,” Wynne wrote, in an undisguised comparison to Trump. “But for the millions of working families in Ontario who rely upon the auto sector to put bread on their table, I thought it was worth pointing out that your statements have been quite incorrect.” She also took shots at his ideology (“Your policies so far suggest that serving society’s most well-off should be the sole role of government”) and a lighter-hearted jab at his Dragon’s Den celebrity (“I want to welcome you to politics … I mean that sincerely. I respect anyone who is willing to enter the den.”) Wynne’s letter was followed by similar missives from Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid and Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault. O’Leary, for his part, didn’t miss the opportunity to swing back. “You and your policies have all but bankrupted a province that was once an economic powerhouse in Canada. If you were the CEO of one of my companies I would have fired you long ago,” he posted, and challenged Wynne to call a snap election (notwithstanding that Ontario has a fixed election date – see “alternative facts,” above). “If you really think you are doing a good job, then prove it, and call an election tomorrow,” he chided. “Unfortunately, we both know you won’t do that though when you are sitting with a 16% approval rating in the polls.”
LINE-UP TO THE RIGHT – As Brown continues to put together his slate of candidates – a process that has been marked by some controversy – he no longer has to worry about a threat to one of his incumbent caucus members. Lisa MacLeod was formally nominated in Nepean last weekend, after Riven Zhang, a self-described “prominent member of the Ottawa Chinese community and an accomplished businessman” withdrew from the race. Zhang publicly announced his support for Merrilee Fullerton as the PC candidate in Kanata-Carleton, and used the same statement to declare, “After considering his own candidacy for the Ontario PC Party in the neighboring Nepean riding, Mr. Zhang decided to join Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown’s team as a senior advisor.” It is reportedly not a paid position, and insiders say Zhang was “persuaded” to withdraw by senior Ottawa Tories. Meanwhile, other ridings continue to see robust PC nomination battles. In Brant, for example, not only is the party’s nomination being contested for the first time since the 1950s, there are at least six wannabe PC candidates. Across the province, even in ridings where the Tories are seen as longshots, the level of interest in PC slots is unusually high (especially this far ahead of an election) – reflecting perceptions, at least in Tory ranks, that Wynne’s Liberals are finished.
FOR THE RECORD
“New families don’t want to go to communities where there won’t be a school anymore and then it snowballs – first you lose the school, then you lose the families, then you lose the grocery story, then you lose the pharmacy and then you don’t have a community anymore. It is happening throughout my community – there are beautiful homes with four and five bedrooms that nobody wants.”
Nickel Belt NDP MPP France Gélinas, echoing an Association of Municipalities of Ontario warning that closing rural schools – under consideration in some parts of the province because of declining enrollment – has ramifications far beyond education.
“This isn’t restricted to me or my colleagues, it’s happening across the country. I don’t read them all because it’s just too toxic, but I read enough of them to know it’s not who we are as Ontarians.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne, in a CBC story with a headline about Wynne being “bombarded on social media by homophobic, sexist abuse.” The story includes screen shots of some nasty posts, as well as examples of particularly offensive comments screened out by the Premier’s staff.
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