WHO KNOWS? – Things are surely tough for a political party when an increase in undecided voters is cause for optimism. But the Ontario Liberals will take hope wherever they can get it these days, and a Mainstreet Research poll this week did indicate the LIBs got a bit of a positive uptick from their move to reduce hydro bills. Their overall support is still a grim 22%, 10 points behind the PC’s 32%, with the NDP trailing at 17%. But about a quarter of the respondents said they’re unsure about who they will vote for, and many applauded the electricity price cuts. However, the level of engagement doesn’t appear to be very high, as evidenced by 26% of respondents saying they prefer PC Leader Patrick Brown’s hydro strategy – when he hasn’t released one yet.
BIG GOVERNMENT – With many politicos away for March Break and the House on hiatus, Queen’s Park was relatively quiet this week. But external forces, namely other levels of government, continued to buffet Ontario politics:
Federal – A few months after expressing deep disappointment over proposed health-care transfers, Ontario is friends with Ottawa again. The dispute was the first real rift between the two levels of Liberals and may still have some lingering impact, but Ontario has agreed to a 10-year deal. Finance Minister Charles Sousa sounded more relieved than happy – “We all want closure so we can proceed with that certainty,” he said – but positioned the pact as an improvement over previous offers. Rather than a flat 3.5% annual increase in transfers, the new agreement is for 3% plus an “escalator” to cover inflation. While Sousa’s enthusiasm may have been tempered, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was naturally much more effusive, crowing, “The fact we now have 12 provinces and territories who have signed onto our approach to health is a great victory for federalism and mostly for Canadians.”
Municipal – Sousa had even less gusto after a meeting with Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has escalated his demands for more provincial funding. The Finance Minister offered a sheepish, “We get we need some predictable, sustainable funding for the city, and we are having discussions about some other tools that may be available for the city to move forward,” while Tory reiterated his anger about the province nixing his plans for expressway tolls. With Sousa standing right there, Tory admonished, “It would be a grave mistake for the Government of Ontario to choose not to step up on housing and transit, in particular, which are vital to the future well-being of this province.” Tory also showed little sympathy for the Liberals’ need to woo voters outside Toronto (which is still their strongest base), asserting, “I’m not trying to anger anybody else in any other part of the province by saying this, but Toronto’s success, Toronto’s contribution to the well-being of this province, including its financial well-being, cannot be underestimated.” All of this contributed to the emerging storyline that Tory is tightening the screws on Queen’s Park, well aware the Liberals can’t afford criticism from him. Councillor Joe Mihevc openly said so: “I think the mayor is playing it wisely. The province owes us. The mayor is not so subtly saying, ‘Now it’s time to cough up an alternative funding strategy.’ ” On the other hand, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti – who has positioned himself as Tory’s unofficial opposition – oddly sided with the province. “He’s playing political chess with his parents,” Mammoliti chided. “The parents aren’t going to fold because he’s kicking and screaming and yelling.”
United States – President Donald Trump wasn’t there, but his spectre certainly hovered over Premier Kathleen Wynne’s meeting with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in Detroit this week. Wynne has been making the rounds with many American legislators – including some that aren’t even from border states, like the meeting she had with the Governor of Vermont last week – to buttress relationships in the face of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric. Both Wynne and Snyder downplayed their meeting as regular business – “This is just good, smart stuff to do – they’re just great neighbours, let’s not make this too complicated,” Snyder told reporters – and they both said Trump’s name really didn’t come up. (Coincidentally, the President himself visited Detroit later in the week.) A key topic of discussion was, not surprisingly, auto manufacturing links between the cross-border jurisdictions. They also reportedly talked about Great Lakes stewardship, as a preamble to a Great Lakes Governors and Premiers Leadership Summit in Windsor and Detroit this fall.
POWER SURGE – Back on the domestic front, electricity costs continue to generate the most heat, with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath – who appears to be staking her election hopes on this issue – doing her utmost to position herself as the consumer champion. Horwath can’t have been happy when the Liberals announced their energy cost reduction plan just days after she unveiled hers, but she’s not ceding the spotlight. She spent the week on tour touting her electricity plan, including yet another stop in Sault Ste. Marie – site of an as-yet-unscheduled by-election – where she opened a new line of attack by linking hydro and healthcare. “The pressure from skyrocketing hydro bills and frozen hospital budgets has already led to frontline workers being laid off, and longer wait times for diagnostic tests like MRIs or CT scans,” she declared, with NDP by-election candidate Joe Krmpotich applauding beside her. Later in the week Horwath got the attention of Queen’s Park reporters, holding a news conference to demand that the Liberals introduce legislation as soon as the House resumes next week. “People deserve to see it in black and white so they can debate it,” she argued. “Don’t hide the details. Don’t delay. Don’t come to the Legislature just before it rises this summer with a last-minute bill, ultimatums and no time for committees, experts and the people of Ontario to take the time they need to examine the bill.” Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault dismissed Horwath’s call, insisting legislation will be tabled with plenty of time for consideration. He also aimed at discrediting her plan from a consumer perspective, charging that, “The NDP’s most expensive idea — buying back more than $4 billion in shares of Hydro One — will not take one cent off electricity bills.”
IN THE HOUSE
The Legislature did not sit this week. MPPs return Monday for a four-week stint. Their next break is scheduled for the week of Easter Monday starting April 17.
FOR THE RECORD
“People will make a judgment about whether it’s enough and you know the politics of it, but, for me, it’s about actually seeing those rates go down, so that people are better off. … What they feel about me or my popularity is actually beside the point.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne, insisting her government’s plan to reduce hydro bills for consumers is not election related.
“People are thinking, ‘Is there really that much difference between the NDP over the last number of years and the Liberal party?’ Those policies that they’ve been promoting, and moving to the centre with, have not worked. And I think it’s now time to try a Bernie Sanders style of political engagement.”
Former Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan, contemplating a run for the federal NDP leadership, if he concludes none of the current candidates is left-wing enough. (As an aside, a “Draft Sid Ryan for NDP Leader” Facebook page has about 350 likes. A similar page supporting Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh has more than 3,800.)
“We have a pretty good system, but it’s being taken away from us. Government is doing it to us with legislation. We’re losing it inch by inch, and we don’t want government down our throats. It’s time to push back. … We need to change the tone and reinstate the attitude of the people who wrote the Magna Carta.”
PC MPP Jack MacLaren, whose “blue-ribbon” panel on property rights has started holding public hearings. Eight of the nine panel members are, like MacLaren, current or past leaders of landowners associations in eastern Ontario.
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