ROCK THE HOUSE – Technically it’s a legislative session, but everyone involved knows that when MPPs reassemble this coming Monday it will be about broad positioning far more than the minutiae of lawmaking. They will convene one more time before the provincial election in June 2018, but by next spring the parties will be in full campaign mode, so the period between now and December is the last real opportunity to use the Legislature as a springboard for policy stances. (This will intensify in November, when PC Leader Patrick Brown’s long-awaited policy conference takes place. Presumably he will emerge with the basis of a platform, which will then become central to his daily Legislature discourse.) Oh, there will be some legislative business, not the least of which will be processing the Liberals’ labour reform bill, which includes the contentious plan to hike the province’s minimum wage to $15/hr. The bill will assuredly pass – after plenty more debate, much to the Liberals’ delight as they are confident they have the public on their side. But even that will be more fraught than earlier in the current mandate. With Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray having left Queen’s Park and no plan to fill the vacant seat before the general election, the Liberal majority is down to just five. They have a caucus of 56, minus Speaker Dave Levac, leaving 55 voting members, against 50 from the Opposition benches.
BRAD NEWS – Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid will be in his seat on Monday, but he won’t be looking to hang on to it next June. Duguid announced this week that he will not seek re-election, joining fellow Liberals Levac, Monte Kwinter and Mario Sergio as well as Tory Julia Munro on the path to retirement. As always in these situations, Duguid insisted his decision was not based on polls showing the Liberals headed to defeat, but was spurred more by the minor heart attack he suffered last year. “Like a good boxer … you have to know when it’s time to go, personally,” he philosophized. “I’m not old, but I am old enough to know that the runway is shorter than it used to be – that now is the time to go and find another way to contribute.” Traditionally this kind of announcement triggers a cabinet shuffle, as an opportunity to raise the profile of backbenchers who are running again. But for now Duguid will stay put, as will the rest of the cabinet – at least until other incumbents confirm they’re on the way out.
COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION – However hostile the mood in the Legislature might be, it will be a welcome respite for most Liberals in the next few weeks, as they endure not one but two courtroom dramas with political ramifications. The cases are unrelated judicially but very much linked politically, as Liberal operatives defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing. In Sudbury, proceedings are now underway to deal with allegations of bribery in the 2015 by-election – with Premier Kathleen Wynne slated to be a star witness for the defence – and next week will see the start of a criminal trial over alleged destruction of government documents related to gas plant closures in 2011. Not everyone is convinced that either or both trials will seriously damage the Liberals’ re-election chances (see below). But the Opposition parties are gung-ho to amplify the relatively minor charges into the equivalent of political war crimes. As several Tories have put it in media interviews, this is “Liberal corruption on trial.”
“You have to put this all in context. The Tories are going through their own mini-crises with riding association battles and legal things going on and police being called in. It’s not just the Liberals, it’s happening to the Tories as well and we don’t know how this is going to play out in the campaign. The other thing is, how much of this has already been discounted? With [Sudbury MPP Glen] Thibeault, this was a cloud hanging over even the last byelection, but voters held their nose and they voted for Thibeault, they held their nose and voted for the side of government.”
Paul Seccaspina of Oraclepoll Research.
POLL DANCE – Regular polling should give some indication as to whether the court cases are having any impact on public sentiments and voting intentions. According to the most recent baseline, a late-August survey by Forum Research found Brown’s Tories still holding a commanding lead, with 40% support among decided voters, well ahead of a statistical tie between the NDP at 27% and the Liberals at 25%. This result brought some joy to the NDP, whose supporters chortled on social media that it shows Liberal efforts to outflank them on the left (e.g., $15 minimum wage) aren’t working.
SOUTHWESTERN UNION – As they watch judicial events unfold in Sudbury, it must gall the New Democrats to know that all of this started when they won the seat in 2014, only to have their MPP decide a few months later that the Queen’s Park lifestyle wasn’t for him, triggering the by-election that snowballed into the bribery saga. But as much as the NDP still sees Northern Ontario as fertile ground, they focused their attention on the other end of the province this week. Leader Andrea Horwath convened a three-day caucus retreat in Chatham-Kent – kicked off by a luncheon with about 100 local community leaders – to prepare for the upcoming legislative session. “We decided to come to southwestern Ontario to have this meeting, because we think that this area … has got a great deal of potential,” Horwath enthused to the Chatham Daily News. “There’s a lot of great things going on here and we think that this particular region deserves a government that’s going to partner with you and share your vision.” Following the 2014 election the Liberals, despite having won a majority, targeted the Southwest (along with Niagara) as an area for improvement. Since then, their flagging popularity province-wide has somewhat broadened their focus, but the dozen or so ridings between London and Windsor figure to be crucial to each party’s success or failure in 2018.
THIS BETTER WORK – Premier Wynne took dead aim at traditional NDP support in her annual Labour Day message – just the latest salvo in her out-left-the-left strategy. Usually these statements are bland platitudes about the value of Ontario’s workers, but Wynne’s language was quite provocative. “This year, Labour Day feels especially meaningful and relevant. I have spent the summer traveling around our province, and what I am hearing is that people are worried. They don’t know what the future holds, only that it is uncertain,” Wynne posited, addressing the “too many people in Ontario who can’t get ahead, don’t feel secure in their job or can’t get a fair deal from their employer.” That last bit was a direct shot at business groups opposing the minimum wage hike – and, by extension, the Tories they tend to support. “There have always been loud and strong arguments for the rich and the well-connected,” Wynne continued, drawing a line between big business on one side and government on the other. “The arguments for those struggling to make ends meet or just too busy getting by often go unheard or unheeded. Government exists to seek out and hear those voices.”
FORD EXPEDITION – Today’s the day former Toronto Councillor Doug Ford is expected to announce his electoral plans, and by most accounts he will opt to run for mayor, setting up a rematch with current Toronto boss John Tory. Speculation has swirled for months that Ford would throw his hat into the provincial ring, and the Etobicoke North PC nomination has reportedly been kept on hold for him. Not only that, but he is featured on the Ontario PC Party website, which touts “An Evening with Doug Ford” in Nepean on September 16, a fundraiser on behalf of MPP Lisa MacLeod (who, of course, can’t attend the event because of new fundraising rules). Nonetheless, rumours persist that PC Party brass made it clear to Ford they didn’t want him on their slate, because his brash style and right-wing views could hinder Brown’s kinder, gentler, more centrist thrust. Word is there was also distrust over Ford’s motivation, amid suggestions he was ready to pounce on a leadership bid should Brown falter in the election. Ford has denied that any such conversations took place, but there is talk that he is marshalling PC candidates throughout Etobicoke and other ridings, which would give him a core of support should the leadership scenario ever unfold.
FOR THE RECORD
“The public wants to know, are you managing your deficit? Are you going to balance the budget this year? Quite frankly, I don’t think the public is terribly hung up on accounting disagreements.”
Treasury Board President Liz Sandals, after releasing public accounts showing last year’s deficit as $991 million – a figure disputed by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who used different calculations to peg the deficit at $1.4 billion.
“I think that this is a very important move, that we recognize the importance of what are sometimes called … global competencies to student learning in all areas. It’s important that we recognize that there’s more to life than the three Rs.”
Annie Kidder of People for Education, welcoming a “refresh” of Ontario’s public school curriculum to focus on critical thinking, spurred in part by low math scores on standardized tests.
“It’s all the best farmland that’s been developed. Essentially it’s entombed forever under asphalt and cement.”
Keith Currie, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, supporting the province’s current public consultation on agriculture in the Greater Golden Horseshoe amidst ever-growing urban pressures.
“We go back to what his brother used to say: Be there for the taxpayer. Drain the swamp … although I think that was another bushy-haired guy.”
Joe Reis, a federal Conservative campaign organizer who has been actively working on behalf of Doug Ford, channelling the late Rob Ford – and U.S. President Donald Trump – in explaining why Doug has reportedly opted to run municipally. Reis also took a shot at Toronto Mayor John Tory, who Ford would be trying to unseat, sniping, “The only thing Tory about that man is his name.”
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