NEWS AT ELEVEN – Public opinion polls haven’t been kind to the Ontario Liberals in quite a while, but the Forum Research results released this week to the Toronto Sun were so eye-poppingly bad for Premier Kathleen Wynne that even her staunchest supporters winced. Those supporters can take some heart in knowing there’s still time to right the ship, with more than a year before the next election. And they can always point to the foibles of between-election polling (U.S. President Donald Trump’s data-defying victory being the most glaring example) to downplay the Forum findings. But oh those findings were harsh: According to the mid-February survey, the LIBs are in third place with just 24% support, miles behind the PCs’ 44% and trailing the NDP at 25%. Analyzed riding-by-riding, Forum calculated those votes would translate into a Tory “super-majority” of 84 seats, compared to 27 for the NDP and just 11 for the Grits. Eleven was also a bad number for Wynne in terms of her approval rating, with only 11% of survey respondents giving her the thumbs up – the lowest ever recorded for a sitting Premier.
MOVE TOWARD THE LIGHT – Soaring hydro rates are widely attributed as a main reason voters are so disenchanted with Wynne’s Liberals, so it’s no surprise to see dramatic measures aimed at easing the strain on consumers. But the NDP also proposed sweeping changes to the electricity system – the first real platform plank for the coming campaign. Whether this is enough for either party to get an electoral boost remains to be seen, but NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is looking for something to grab voters’ attention, while Wynne needs something to neutralize the negativity being generated on the hydro file. Highlights of a tumultuous week:
The Liberal plan would see consumers’ electricity bills drop by 25% (and additional 17% on top of the already-announced HST rebate), mostly through longer amortization of the financing for energy projects. “I don’t expect a celebration as we make these announcements today. People are struggling with electricity costs that are too much for their families to bear,” Wynne admitted, with an apologetic tone reminiscent of the contrition around gas plant cancellations that worked pretty well in dissipating voter anger three years ago. “For too long, governments – my own included – have made mistakes in the way we’ve structured Ontario’s electricity system.” Measures in the plan include increased subsidies for rural consumers – covered by the general treasury rather than through hydro bills.
Horwath took the populist approach even further, promising reductions of up to 30%, with the centrepiece of her plan being the buy-back of Hydro One – the sale of which she has vehemently opposed. Horwath would also make time-of-use pricing voluntary, and charge remote customers the same rates as in urban areas – despite the higher transmission costs. “Electricity isn’t a luxury,” she proclaimed. “It shouldn’t be priced like one.”
PC Leader Patrick Brown flatly dismissed the Liberal plan, calling it “a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.” He refused to join in – for now – on setting targets. “I’m not going to get into hypothetical numbers,” was all he would say, but he did promise to unveil his party’s electricity plan within the next couple of weeks, after originally deferring to the PC policy conference in November.
Horwath, who needs to erode some PC support to have any chance in the election – by positioning the NDP as the better choice for voters wanting a change from the Liberals – took the opportunity to slam Brown while she had the podium. “Nobody knows who Patrick Brown is. Nobody knows what he wants to do, except that he’s been an elected politician for 17 years, nine of which he was in a Harper government that did a lot of cutting and a lot of privatization,” she sniped. Brown has been equally opposed to the Hydro One sell-off, but by mentioning the Conservatives’ penchant for privatization, Horwath is obviously looking to claim the Hydro One ground solely for her party.
RUNNING JUMP – Wynne’s ongoing unpopularity has amped up speculation about an internal movement to get her to step aside, but this idea is met by a firm “not gonna happen” from those around her. The Liberals’ gloomy re-election outlook also has many observers wondering about current MPPs who might choose to bail out before they have to face voters. Those decisions are nigh, as the LIBs have started the process of nominating incumbent MPPs, with Richmond Hill’s Reza Moridi first out of the gate last weekend. Few sitting MPPs are expected to be challenged internally for nominations; indeed, given the polls, Wynne’s Liberals aren’t exactly attracting hordes of would-be candidates even in unheld and new ridings.
SAM DUNK – Most current PC MPPs are already nominated, but the one incumbent known to be facing a challenge is said to be in for quite a fight – and could well lose. That’s the word from Queen’s Park oddsmakers, who look at the situation in Niagara West and think challenger Tony Quirk is a decent bet to snatch the nomination away from Sam Oosterhoff. Although Brown has made it clear he wants his current caucus to focus on beating the Liberals and not internal competitors – hence the spate of early incumbent nominations – the party’s central nomination committee has cleared Quirk to run against the teenage Oosterhoff. Ostensibly there was no valid reason to disqualify him, and Brown has vowed not to intervene in local battles. (Or maybe he already did: Presumably Brown could have thwarted Quirk if he really wanted to. Quirk’s green light adds to speculation the party braintrust is worried that Oosterhoff’s social conservative background makes him a potential off-message liability.) In terms of Quirk’s chances of succeeding in his coup, insiders say he has recently sold a bunch of memberships to support his bid. Oosterhoff, who has only been an MPP for a few months and thought he had an unobstructed path to the nomination, reportedly hasn’t been selling memberships – and can’t now, because sales have been cut off in advance of the March 7 nomination meeting. What’s more, Niagara West is being carved out of Oosterhoff’s current seat of Niagara West-Glanbrook through redistribution, leaving an estimated 20% of his previous support base – including at least one large church group – behind. On the other hand, Quirk finished fourth in the by-election nomination, and would have to make up a lot of ground to topple Oosterhoff if the latter’s supporters turn out in big numbers again. Regardless of the outcome of the nomination vote, Brown could have to manage some awkward moments with Oosterhoff, who will either be rendered a lame-duck MPP or one miffed that the leader allowed him to be opposed.
GREAT CAUCUS ROOM IN THE SKY – Queen’s Parkers of a certain era, and people from Markham of many eras, are mourning the passing of Don Cousens, who died this week at the age of 78. Cousens was the Progressive Conservative MPP for Markham from 1981-1995, and one of his colleagues at Queen’s Park was Enterprise’s own Phil Gillies. Here’s Phil’s tribute:
It would be easier to write a piece on what Don Cousens didn’t achieve in his years at Queen’s Park and as Mayor of Markham. Getting approval for the Markham-Unionville-Milliken GO Train line, getting approval of the Markham-Stouffville Hospital through cabinet, pushing Highway 407 forward, getting the IBM land acquisition for Markham’s R&D software lab, Founding Chair of the Markham Synergy Centre. Don was a bit of a Renaissance Man – before he went into politics he was a technology executive, had a Masters in Divinity from the University of Toronto and was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2003.
You can’t spend any time in Markham without seeing Don’s name – The Don Cousens Parkway, the Don Cousens Conference Centre and the Donald Cousens Public School – all honours given him by the community he served so well. The respect and affection for him is very real.
But I will remember Don as a supportive, energetic friend with a terrific sense of humour. We were elected the same day in 1981 and were colleagues in caucus during my whole time at Queen’s Park. When Don was Deputy Speaker of the Legislature he threatened to throw me out of the House, more than once, over my helpful interjections. He once said he would have the Sergeant At Arms escort me out if he thought I would learn anything from the experience “but I am confident you would not!”
Don was just a good guy and a great politician. He’ll be missed by all who knew him.
IN THE HOUSE
No new government bills were introduced this week.
Bill 27, the Burden Reduction Act to cut regulatory red tape for businesses, passed Third Reading.
Long-time Liberal MPP Monte Kwinter – the oldest-ever MPP in Ontario history – was back in the House this week for the first time in months. The 85-year-old Kwinter reportedly moved to a nursing home to recover from illness and was absent from the Legislature all of last fall.
FOR THE RECORD
“We removed competition within the electricity sector and offered an attractive, standard-offer rate to developers of large, utility-scale wind and solar installations. This made sense at the time, and we drove significant investment in the province. We now know that competitive tension within and among renewable energy developers could lead to much more attractive pricing. As they say, hindsight is 20-20.”
Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault, admitting to the Economic Club of Canada that the Liberals’ green energy policies helped drive up electricity rates – a mea culpa that set off a wave of I-told-you-so’s from the Opposition parties.
“She’s appealing to nostalgia. Wouldn’t it be nice to just go back in time, like Donald Trump?”
Professor Warren Mabee of the Queen’s University Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, oddly evoking the controversial U.S. President to criticize NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s electricity plan, which Mabee argues goes against system modernization.
“Hearing that our tickets were being bought by scalper bots, leaving real fans shut out from our shows, was terrible. We’ve got an opportunity right now to do something about it. The government is listening — I encourage all fans of music, theatre, sports, to make your voices heard.”
Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker, supporting Attorney General Yasir Naqvi’s latest effort to crack down on what Naqvi called the “underground technology” used to scoop up most of the tickets for popular events and sell them at inflated prices. Naqvi launched public consultations this week, aimed at new legislation in the spring.
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