WATCHDOG AND PONY SHOW – Not so long ago, cabinet ministers openly disagreeing with an Auditor General would have been unthinkable; no matter how harsh a report may have been, the politicians in power would have to suck it up and say thank you for the advice. These days we’re seeing unprecedented pushback, as evidenced by the Liberals’ reaction to A-G Bonnie Lysyk’s assertion that their cuts to consumer hydro rates are being accounted for in such as way as to hide an extra $4 billion in costs. Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault categorically disagreed, insisting that accepted accounting practices were followed, and “there was no fast one being pulled at all.” It was similar to an earlier spat when Lysyk challenged pension calculations, concluding that the deficit was higher than Liberal claims. This new attitude toward government oversight started bubbling up a few years ago when the Liberals took exception to then-Ombusdman André Marin’s heavy-handed approach – which made him a media darling, but the LIBs felt was unfair. (Marin’s post-Ombudsman activities have lent some credence to their beefs, as he ran for the Tories and has been a vitriolic critic of the current administration. See For the Record, below.) It’s a bonanza for the Opposition, who can seize on both the substance of the Auditor’s findings and the Liberal response to it. Voters, on the other hand, may be less interested in accounting arcana, and the LIBs seem content to dismiss the watchdogs as media hounds.
IT ALL ADS UP – One of the offshoots of new election spending rules is that the advertising blitz we would normally see leading up to the campaign is being rolled out far in advance. As of November 9 – exactly six months before the writ drop for the month-long election campaign culminating June 7, 2018 – a hard cap will clamp down on advertising budgets. For political parties it’s $1 million (total, over the entire six months) while outside interests can’t spend more than $600,000. Hence the recent spate of high-profile political ads, as those looking for saturation must, in the parlance of the TV hucksters they are emulating, Act Now! It’s an expensive gambit – many of the ads are running in prime time and in coveted slots like Hockey Night in Canada and NFL football broadcasts, none of which come cheap. And the return on this investment is dubious, in that the marketers are counting on ads in October somehow still resonating when voters engage next spring. Evidently they believe that will indeed be the case, given the current onslaught:
As a counterpunch to hardcore negative PC ads trumpeting “Kathleen Wynne is untrustworthy,” the Liberals have gone the everyman route, with TV spots featuring the proverbial ‘real people’ talking about the hardships they face in an unforgiving job market. Wynne then steps forward to say, “This is why I am in political life,” and espouses her fairness agenda. Perhaps most notable is Wynne’s appearance, as she addresses the camera without her trademark glasses on.
A new third party group has emerged, calling itself Working Ontario Women (yes, WOW) ostensibly to promote women’s equality. But their ads exhort voters to support progressive candidates, which is widely interpreted to read: Don’t vote Conservative. (This, naturally, incensed right-wing media, such as The Rebel, which decried WOW as a “pink-washed front group.” The Rebel host Sheila Gunn Reid fumed, “What’s really the point of WOW? It’s a union front group feigning girl power as a way to dump advertising support towards progressive liberal candidates.”) WOW’s major sponsor is the Service Employees International Union, and it is separate from the union-driven Working Families Coalition that has run anti-Tory campaigns around the past three elections. Working Families is reportedly still in the game, with ads of their own to come.
It isn’t an ad campaign, and is decidedly cheaper, but the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has been on a crusade of its own, and its anti-Liberal “moving van” promotion rolled into Queen’s Park this week. The CTF has decked out a van with red lettering blazoning “Kathleen Wynne’s Moving Company – Helping Businesses and Families Leave Ontario,” alongside an outline of the province with arrows pointing away from it. CTF Ontario Director Christine Van Geyn has been taking the truck on a province-wide tour, attracting sparse crowds but generating some media coverage. “We wanted to use satire to make that point [of Liberal policies hurting business], because satire gets a lot of attention,” she explained. “It’s a great way of sending an important message in a fun way.”
THIRTYSOMETHINGS – According to a recent poll, the hearts and minds advertisers are trying to win are just about evenly split right now. Campaign Research found the PCs still leading with 36% support (down two points from a similar survey a month ago) among decided voters, but not far ahead of the Liberals at 32% (down one point) and the NDP at 25% (up two.)
ZONE DEFENCE – Having seen their effort to embarrass the Tories boomerang, this week the Liberals agreed to fast-track – sort of – legislation to create safety zones around abortion clinics. No doubt the LIBs were hoping drawn-out debate on the issue would expose rifts in the PC camp among social conservatives, but that backfired when the Tories proposed immediate passage – forcing the Liberals to hem and haw about the need for further study of their own bill. This week saw expedited passage of Second Reading – only former PC and now independent MPP Jack MacLaren voted against it, as has been his habit for many bills since leaving the Tory caucus – and the start of committee hearings. The legislation is due back for final clearance next week, moving the bill along, in the words of Ottawa Citizencolumnist David Reevely, “zippily, but not too zippily.”
RUMOURS & RUMBLINGS
With NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo retiring from Queen’s Park as of the New Year, the rumour mill has shifted into overdrive about who might run for the Liberals to replace her in Parkdale-High Park. One high-profile name that has emerged is former Toronto Mayor David Miller – even though he has previously aligned himself with the NDP. Miller has been CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada since 2013 but is leaving that post (for a new gig as North American director for climate change organization C40 Cities) and is said to be hankering for a return to politics. Adding another layer of intrigue, the speculation goes so far as to suggest he has his eye on the party leadership should the provincial election result in a vacancy.
IN THE HOUSE
No new government legislation was introduced this week.
In a rare gesture, House business was delayed for comment on the work of another province’s legislature. In this case it was to unanimously condemn Quebec’s recently passed bill banning public servants from wearing face coverings (a move widely seen as aimed at the Muslim niqab). “This is the kind of action that drives wedges in communities. It is not acceptable to me, and it should not be acceptable to any of us,” Premier Wynne admonished. “We have a very close working relationship with Quebec, but on this issue we fundamentally do not agree.”
FOR THE RECORD
“That would not be a risk I would ever support taking … [I told him] the only type of organization that doesn’t keep any records is a criminal organization.”
Former Cabinet Secretary Peter Wallace, with some potentially damning testimony at the trial of two former senior Liberal aides. David Livingston and Laura Miller are charged with illegally destroying government records, and Wallace testified he would not have given Livingston a special password if he had known an outsider – in this case Miller’s spouse – would be using it to wipe government computers.
“I share their anxiety, but I think we still have to let the process work.”
Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews, sympathetic to students stressed about a strike by college faculty, but not yet prepared to intervene in the dispute.
“Back at my old office, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has managed the nearly impossible. When he was appointed he acted like a five-year-old sitting in a pilot’s seat. ‘This is my dream job, this is my dream job!’ he sounded. Dubé said he would do things differently. And he sure has. Ever heard one peep from his office? Neither have I. He’s returned the office to the obscure backwaters.”
André Marin, who was legendarily provocative as Ombudsman, using his Sun Media column to blast his successor for not being similarly aggressive. The overall column was a slam at the Liberals (a standard theme for Marin, who ran as a PC by-election candidate) for watering down government oversight.
“Either teachers until Grade 3 are good at teaching math, and then become terrible between Grades 4 to 6, and then become good again between Grades 7 to 9. Or there is a problem with the tests themselves.”
Sachin Maharaj, a PhD candidate and Canada Graduate Scholar in educational policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, noting that Ontario math test scores trend up then down then up again — and joining the chorus that Education Quality and Accountability Office tests should be overhauled, or scrapped.
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