CHRISTMAS DON’T BE LATE – Mid-December is always the most wonderful time of the year around Queen’s Park, as everyone looks forward to the Legislature’s winter break. This year that feeling is even more pronounced, amid palpable exhaustion for politicos of all denominations who have been going full tilt since the spring. Many factors have conspired to make 2018 a unique grind: PC leadership upheaval mere weeks before the start of a gruelling election campaign; an expedited transition process; the almost immediate recall of the House; the bedlam of a new government with 73 rookie MPPs, scores of newbie staff and a different party in power after 15 years; and that new government driven to make rapid and significant change. A much-needed breather has arrived, with the House rising a week ahead of schedule. MPPs will next convene February 19, after the Family Day long weekend.
MISMANAGING EXPECTATIONS – A bad year for the Ontario Liberals got predictably worse this week when Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk tabled her annual report. Usually the A-G’s report is a gift for the Opposition, but in this case she played Santa for Doug Ford’s Tories, exposing a litany of bureaucratic mismanagement that mostly happened on the Liberal watch. This didn’t stop the NDP from wailing that the Tories will make it worse, but it all amounted to a platform for Ford and company to reiterate their foundational pledges to clean up government in general. Indeed, within minutes of Lysyk’s report appearing, a government news release was out rebuking the “reckless overspending, lack of oversight and soft-on-compliance approaches under the previous government” and touting that the Ford government “continues to take swift action to restore trust in the province’s finances.” Typical of the maladministration cited by Lysyk – and duly highlighted by the Tories, sure to be used as fodder for their change agenda – were $730 million in social assistance overpayments, 76% of them to people who were no longer Ontario Works recipients.
WITNESS BOXING – Perhaps no-one will be happier to see 2018 in the rear-view mirror than ex-Premier Kathleen Wynne, who endured an extra humiliation this week when she was compelled to testify at the select committee – the PC-dominated, no-Liberal committee – looking into her government’s fiscal management. By most accounts Wynne comported herself well as she was grilled on her Fair Hydro Plan, giving as good as she got – particularly denouncing Ford’s criticisms as “outrageous hyperbole.” She even got a bit of support from New Democrat MPPs like Sandy Shaw, who scorned the committee hearings as “political theatre” and concluded, “there’s no smoking gun … where everybody gasps and goes, ‘We got to the bottom of this.’” But the Tories certainly made their point, with PC MPP Ross Romano, who had been particularly aggressive in questioning Wynne, later telling reporters, “I don’t believe I heard anything by way of an apology.”
GOOD COP, BAD COP – It’s not hard to imagine Liberal supporters plotting revenge should they ever regain power, and they no doubt filed away the controversy around newly-appointed Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Ronald Taverner for future reference. Taverner just happens to be a long-time friend of Ford’s, which in today’s politics is grounds for scandal. Every government naturally turns to people it knows and trusts, so accusations of cronyism are inevitable. In Taverner’s case, the dudgeon revolves around changes in the recruitment criteria that enabled him to qualify for the post. Nonetheless it was an independent process, as Ford vociferously pointed out. “I had zero influence,” he insisted. “I told them very clearly, I don’t want anything to do with this whatsoever.” Ford also angrily dismissed suggestions Taverner might manipulate investigations – say, around the Premier himself, which would be the OPP’s purview. “I can’t influence and tell the police what to do. It’s very simple,” Ford asserted.
UNION SOLDIERS – Ford’s government butting heads with public sector labour unions is widely seen as unavoidable, but private sector unions – where many members have been known to support the Tories – could be a different story. However, one big private sector union has made it clear it will not be playing nice. Leaders of the 300,000-member Unifor are angry at Ford’s pleas of helplessness in the face of the pending closure of the General Motors plant in Oshawa. They have joined forces with OPSEU – another of Canada’s biggest unions, representing some 150,000 Ontario civil servants – in a formal alliance to battle what they called Ford’s “destructive agenda.” Unifor President Jerry Dias set the bar for the coming fight during a speech caught by television cameras. Pausing in his remarks about the Oshawa situation, Dias looked up and muttered, “You know, Doug … fuck you.” The line was met with thunderous applause.
CITY HALL OF FAME – In all the tumult of the Ford government’s first few months, the shrinking of Toronto City Council is arguably his most notable move to date – thanks largely to the intense media attention around it. That attention amped up again this week as the new council was sworn in, as all involved scrutinize how well the smaller council performs. One of the new council’s first acts was to double their staff budgets (which was criticized by the provincial Tories), while the first meeting between Ford and re-elected Toronto Mayor John Tory was described as cordial but tense. Meanwhile, as other municipal politicians were sworn in, swearing of a different kind was heard under the breath of some in Ford’s inner circle as they watched the inauguration of Patrick Brown – Ford’s predecessor as PC leader – as Mayor of Brampton. Adding to their revulsion (their disdain of Brown is hardly a state secret) was the fact that the ceremonial chain of office was presented by a party icon, former Premier Bill Davis. This week also marked the political rebirth of a few Liberals unseated in June’s election, with Bill Mauro debuting as Mayor of Thunder Bay, Kathryn McGarry taking over as Mayor of Cambridge and Jim Bradley sworn in as a Niagara Regional Councillor before being elected Chair by his council peers.
IN THE HOUSE
Prior to rising for the winter break, Steve Clark, the Minister responsible for Red Tape Reduction, introduced Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act – sweeping legislation to change, harmonize or eliminate more than 30 rules and regulations across 12 ministries to reduce the regulatory burden on business.
Three government bills passed before the House recessed: Bill 32, updated rules around gas distribution; Bill 34, repealing the previous government’s Green Energy Act (interestingly, only three Liberal MPPs were on hand for the vote, and Wynne wasn’t among them); and Bill 57, implementing fiscal measures announced in the fall economic statement.
“Part of where the previous government and, frankly, the federal government, have lost the storyline, is in making the connections to impacts on people. Some of the – I’ll call them the environmental sophisticates – they actually mock that approach.”
Environment Minister Rod Phillips, unapologetic about the populist tone of his climate change plan – which includes smallish measures such as a day dedicated to cleaning up litter.
“Nous sommes, nous serons ! [We are, we will be!]”
Chant at protests outside MPPs’ offices by francophones angry at the Ford government’s cuts to their services. Independent MPP Amanda Simard, who quit the PC caucus over the issue, was among the demonstrators in Hawkesbury.
“You know, that’s the best thing about being from St. Thomas — I’m not going to want a GO station or a subway in my riding.”
Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek, telling the Toronto Star he is able to make impartial decisions about Toronto’s transit system – a not-so-subtle dig at former Liberal Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, who was accused of political interference around a GO station in his home riding of Vaughan.