CANADIAN FORCES – National issues have been known to sometimes occupy – and occasionally derail – the agendas of Ontario governments. Premier Doug Ford hasn’t indicated any ‘Captain Canada’ aspirations, but no fewer than three extra-provincial events got his attention this week:
Ford expressed mixed feelings about a new deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement as negotiated by the federal government. On one hand, he welcomed aspects of the new United States Mexico Canada Agreement (acronym USMCA – quickly dubbed “You Smacka” by some who think Canada got the short end of the stick), inasmuch as it preempted auto industry tariffs threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump. But Ontario dairy farmers weren’t happy, and Ford sided with them, demanding that Ottawa compensate farmers “thrown under the bus” by the deal. Ford also took a shot at the Canadian negotiators – whom he supported during a visit to Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago – chiding, “We weren’t at the table or maybe the deal would have been a little different.”
Across the provincial border to the east, the stunning election of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec would seem to be a good thing for Ford’s Tories, installing another right-leaning party in a provincial capital. Ford isn’t known to have any relationship with incoming Québec Premier François Legault, but lines are surely being opened. The Québec result also continued the narrative of major change in the political landscape. It was not so long ago that two Liberal Premiers, Kathleen Wynne here and Philippe Couillard in Québec, were touting their joint environmental and economic initiatives. Now they’re both gone, with Couillard’s Liberals racking up their worst showing since Confederation to join Wynne’s Grits on the sidelines.
Moving westward, Ford met with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe then headed to Alberta in his fight against a pending federal carbon tax. In Calgary, Ford will speak at a “Scrap The Carbon Tax” rally organized by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party. Promotions for the event included a picture of Kenney and Ford smiling with their arms around each other. Ford is expected to get a hero’s welcome at the rally.
ON PINS AND NEEDLES – Having already waged war against left-wingers on several fronts (cancelling a minimum wage hike, scrapping the basic income pilot project, shrinking Toronto City Council), Ford could be facing another even more highly charged tussle over Supervised Injection Sites. Ford has suggested he doesn’t support the facilities – which provide a safe place for addicts to consume drugs – and has threatened to cut the provincial funding they depend on. But it’s an extremely emotional issue so he’s treading carefully for now, with Community and Social Services Minister Lisa Macleod opting to postpone a decision for another month to continue the review. Word is the Tories themselves are split on what to do, recognizing that overdose prevention sites indisputably save lives, but at the same time often lead to increases in crime and anti-social behaviour in the neighbourhoods where they are located. As a sign of things to come, advocates planted more than 1,200 white crosses on the lawn at Queen’s Park to commemorate those who have died from overdoses in the past year.
CLEAN BREAK – There probably won’t be any memorials for the Drive Clean program, which has been officially scrubbed by Ford’s Tories. “Drive Clean was intended to be a time-limited program, and as the years passed, so did its usefulness,” declared Environment Minister Rod Phillips. “It has provided less and less value for taxpayer dollars.” This is the latest in a string of pocketbook-related announcements from the new government – although the actual impact on drivers’ wallets is negligible, with fees for the tests waived a few years ago. However, Drive Clean still cost money to implement, still required time to get the emission tests done and there was still residual resentment from drivers who considered the whole thing a needless inconvenience. Drive Clean isn’t completely dead though, with a revamped version of the program in the works to focus on heavy-duty vehicles like transport trucks.
AUTOPSY TURVY – Last Saturday’s Liberal provincial council – a.k.a. election post-mortem – was an oddly upbeat affair, considering the current state of the party. As some reports noted, there was an understandable “undercurrent of anger” in the closed-door sessions. But the size of the gathering – 750 attendees (triple the usual number) from more than 100 ridings – did offer hope that the party can rebuild. Some other observations:
The day-long event had a family reunion (or maybe more of a wake) feel, as many Liberals who hadn’t been seen at these events for a while renewed acquaintances. Among those emerging from a self-imposed exile were ex-MPPs David Caplan (who is running for Toronto council), Murray Elston, Sandra Pupatello and Chris Bentley. Cabinet ministers who lost their seats in June were also plentiful, including Charles Sousa, Steven Del Duca, Yasir Naqvi and Helena Jaczek.
While there was plenty of blame directed at the campaign brain-trust, evidently there is still great affection within the party for former Premier Wynne. She received two standing ovations and warm applause every time her name was mentioned. In a way, this ongoing admiration may have contributed to the election thrashing. As one campaign official admitted, there was “cognitive dissonance” – a clash between their fondness for Wynne and the visceral dislike they were hearing from voters – that factored into their disastrous strategy of keeping her out front.
No amount of good cheer could hide the dire state of the party’s finances, which emerged as the most immediate and pressing worry. The Ontario Liberal Party is more than $9 million in debt and has only a year’s worth of operating funds, while facing limited ways to replenish the coffers thanks to their own changes to fundraising rules. To illustrate just how bad things are, they literally took up a collection at the conference, with volunteers passing around baskets for cash donations. This tactic reportedly raised a considerable amount of money, but the symbolism was jarring. (Another sign of the fall from grace: rather than the standard plated meal, attendees were treated to a box lunch.)
With so many Liberals in one place, the provincial council was an ideal opportunity for some with leadership aspirations to begin feeling out the crowd to assess their chances of securing the top job. According to party insiders, Ottawa-area MPP Marie-France Lalonde had feelers out and there was some “lukewarm” outreach by other surviving MPPs Mitzie Hunter and Michael Couteau. It was also noted that defeated MPPs Del Duca and Naqvi were making overtures that could lay the foundation for leadership bids, as was federal Liberal Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
Ford’s depiction of the LIBs as the “Minivan Party” – because the seven-member caucus can fit in the average minivan – clearly stung. Interim Leader John Fraser did his best to turn it around, with numerous references to touring the province in a minivan to engage with voters and Liberals being on the side of the families who drive minivans and auto workers who build them.
Amid the gloom, the Liberals showed they still have a sense of humour. In his keynote speech, Fraser acknowledged, “There will never be a Fraser Nation.” A typo on the venue’s electronic signboards – calling it the Ontario Liberial Party – was also good for some yuks, including quips that moving to Liberia might not be a bad idea and that the party’s re-brand had already started.
Lastly, a shout-out to Enterprise’s own Tiffany Gooch, who did a beautiful job singing the national anthem to start the proceedings.
IN THE HOUSE
No new government legislation was introduced this week.
The House will be dark next week following Thanksgiving on Monday, as MPPs take a constituency break.
FOR THE RECORD
“We’re getting rid of Bill 148 … Bottom line, it’s an absolute job killer.”
Premier Doug Ford, vowing to scrap labour reforms brought in by the previous Liberal government. Economic Development Minister Jim Wilson was less definitive, explaining that the legislation is under review and “there are parts that we will keep and there are parts that probably will go.”
“[Voters] put us in the penalty box. Time will tell for how long.”
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, acknowledging that voters “made the right call” in ousting the Grits.
“The most important election is the next one.”
Former federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae, trying to cheer up provincial Liberals by advising not to over-read too much into either defeat or victory in any given campaign.
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