FISCAL THERAPY – The now-annual drip-drip-drip of the provincial Budget is underway, with Finance Minister Charles Sousa offering little hints about what will be in his pending fiscal plan. This week he talked of measures to cool Toronto’s blistering housing market, adding that it won’t be just one step, suggesting he’s looking at a “suite of options.” Sousa is also being coy about the actual date for the Budget – “It’s not complete, yet” was his answer to that question from reporters. April 13th is seen as a possible timeframe, although that’s the day before Good Friday. Given that Sousa needs a robust post-Budget tour to sell the initiatives – a must for the Liberals to have any hope of turning around their sagging popularity – it would be an odd strategy to launch the Budget right before a momentum-killing long weekend. Once the date is set, look for an onrush of announcements, as the LIBs keep up a tradition of rolling out many of the key Budget themes in advance.
GREGATIVITY – As Sousa prepares for the upcoming Budget, the words of a former Liberal Finance Minister are hanging heavily in the air. Greg Sorbara, who once wielded supreme influence in Ontario Liberal politics, stunned friends and foes alike when he opined, on TVO’s The Agenda, that poll numbers put Liberal re-election chances in “grave, grave doubt,” and that Premier Kathleen Wynne should step down. Coming from a Liberal power broker – Sorbara notably threw his support behind Wynne during the leadership convention that installed her as Premier – the comment has layers of intrigue. He’s known as a canny politician, so many observers assume the move was calculated, and there is much speculation about what might happen next. Wynne couldn’t have been happy about it, surely, but she put on a brave face when it once again raised questions about her immediate future. “Punditry is a wonderful thing,” she shrugged. “Retired politicians engaging in punditry is an even more wonderful thing. I will leave Greg and whoever else to their opinions. There’s no secret there have always been people in the Liberal Party who weren’t keen on me. That’s a reality.” If there is going to be an internal campaign to push Wynne out, it will have to happen soon, giving the party time to pick and groom a new leader before next year’s election.
DIRTY DOZEN – Even before Sorbara made his pronouncement, new polling numbers bolstered his case. A national survey by the Angus Reid Institute pegged Wynne’s approval rating at 12% – a horrible number on many levels. It’s a drop of four points from a similar poll last December; it’s the worst among Premiers across the country; and it’s the second-lowest rating ever recorded in this regular poll. (Only B.C.’s Gordon Campbell ever got lower approval, in single digits – paving the way for his resignation in 2010. As Sorbara is no doubt aware, Campbell’s successor Christy Clark managed to fix the damage, keeping the Liberals in power in the subsequent election.) Later in the week Forum Research poured more fuel on the fire, releasing poll results showing the Liberals potentially losing party status. According to Forum, the Tories have 43% support among decided voters, the NDP 28% and the Liberals just 19% – which, translated to seat counts, would give the PCs a big majority and leave the LIBs with only seven seats. Despite these low numbers, however, most pundits – excepting, perhaps, Sorbara – still see a race in Ontario. Wynne has a reputation as a very good campaigner, and her chief opponent, PC Leader Patrick Brown,is still a relative unknown. Interestingly, Wynne and Brown have somewhat similar story arcs, in that both have been perpetually underestimated, and both made careers from outhustling rivals.
OH, MAN – We’re still more than a year away from the next provincial election, but already the hyper-partisanship of a campaign is starting to swamp Queen’s Park – when every move and utterance is subjected to howls of outrage from the other side. Two cases in point this week:
PC MPP Jack MacLaren, whose sexist jokes at a cancer fundraiser last year got him banished from the Tory caucus while he underwent sensitivity training – and thereby painted a target on his back for the Liberals – got in trouble again during legislative debate. The offending quote had to do with protecting patients from sexual abuse, and MacLaren’s contention that the proposed laws are too rigid: “Any time you hear the term ‘zero tolerance’, I find that dangerous, because there always has to be consideration of leniency, of understanding and of tolerance.” Cue the umbrage, ranging from Health Minister Eric Hoskins admonishing, “Zero tolerance means just that. Zero tolerance for any form of sexual abuse of any kind by anyone, period,” to Deputy Premier Deb Matthews going for the jugular by describing MacLaren’s comment as “a throwback to another era when misogynist opinions were the norm.” MacLaren later apologized, but Brown felt compelled to distance himself from the wayward MPP – again. “There’s no grey in this issue,” Brown pronounced. “It was a foolish comment.” (Brown, notably, has not blocked a nomination challenge against MacLaren. Prominent Ottawa physician Merilee Fullerton has the green light to try and usurp MacLaren, and she reportedly has the backing of some Tory heavyweights in the area.)
Brown was also on the defensive about another event that, under normal circumstances, would barely register on the political radar. But in these days of overheated scrutiny, giving a speech to the Cambridge Club is apparently akin to a war crime. See, the Cambridge Club is men-only, and when the Liberals learned Brown would be speaking there they pounced, with Women’s Issues Minister Indira Naidoo-Harris charging, “He’s sending a very strong message that, in terms of how he regards Ontarians, he’s fine leaving women out.” Except that Brown’s speech was at the Toronto Athletic Club which, while owned by the Cambridge Club, is in fact wide open to anyone. As the Tories snidely pointed out, former NDP MP and noted feminist Olivia Chow has spoken there. They, and many commentators, deemed the Liberal indignation to be “excessive.”
Only 14 more months of this to go.
NIAGARA FRONTIER – One woman who clearly doesn’t think the Tories are sexist is Wainfleet Mayor April Jeffs, who will be acclaimed for the party’s nomination in the newly-created riding of Niagara Centre on April 9th. This is something of a coup for Brown, inasmuch as Jeffs is exactly the kind of candidate he is trying to attract – female, relatively young, experienced in business and politics. The only knock against her would be that she doesn’t live in the new riding, but few expect that to be a serious hindrance. Jeffs lives in the reconfigured riding of Niagara West, which is held, strongly, by Sam Oosterhoff. Speaking of the teenage MPP, he’s another reason for Brown to smile. Far from the punchline he was supposed to be, most of the reviews of Oosterhoff have been positive, with stakeholders visiting his office saying he is always well-briefed and articulate, earning respect that belies his youth.
RUMOURS & RUMBLINGS
TO DIE FOR
Many MPPs report they have rarely seen a public response as intense as that around Bill 84, provincial legislation with respect to medical assistance in dying. Public hearings finished this week, amid an outpouring of correspondence. Literally tens of thousands of people have emailed or snail-mailed constituency offices asking that the conscience rights of healthcare professionals be protected through the bill – i.e., healthcare providers who are morally opposed to assisted suicide should not be forced to provide it, or referrals, for their patients. Conscience rights advocates were equally active in successfully lobbying at the federal level, convincing MPs and Senators to agree to protections last year. Under the banner of www.canadiansforconscience.ca almost 43,000 electronic letters have been sent to federal and provincial officials. Of those, some 22,000 were to Ontario politicians, while thousands more were sent by regular mail. “The days of traditional lobbying are over,” observed our own Peter Landry, Enterprise’s Managing Principal, who spearheaded the campaign. “The digital world has changed everything. If you can’t harness constituents to care and act on an issue, your cause will be an also-ran.”
Michael Coteau, Minister responsible for Anti-Racism, introduced Bill 114, the Anti-Racism Act, to embed the Anti-Racism Directorate in law and promote a “whole-of-government effort towards identifying and redressing systemic racism in our society.”
Bill 111, the Supply Act authorizing the public payroll, passed Third Reading.
FOR THE RECORD
“At a time when Ontario ratepayers are hurting, this kind of compensation is not only undeserving, it’s a slap in the face. In a year where tens of thousands of Hydro One customers were disconnected and hundreds of thousands were found to be in arrears because of uncontrolled hydro prices, executive salaries … hit astronomical new highs.”
PC Energy Critic Todd Smith, getting a jump on the annual “Sunshine List” of high government earners – which comes out today – by assailing the salaries of Hydro One brass. Although the newly-privatized utility only has to publicly release the pay packets of its top five executives, the fact that the quintet pulled in some $11 million last year gave Smith plenty of ammunition.
“All municipalities are struggling, including our own. I think we just have to make it work, because I can’t imagine any government de-amalgamating a city like Sudbury. I think it would create all sorts of chaos. It’s a good debating point, however.”
Floyd Laughren, who was MPP for Nickel Belt for 26 years and Finance Minister in the NDP government of the 1990s, opposing renewed calls for Greater Sudbury – which was created under the PC government that succeeded his – to be split back into smaller municipalities.
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