Return of the Ontario Legislative Assembly

The Top Line

Today, Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) return to Queen’s Park for the Winter/Spring 2018 session of the Legislative Assembly. The Legislature will sit until the Premier requests that it be ‘dissolved’ by the Lieutenant Governor for the Thursday, June 7, 2018 Provincial Election. That could happen at any time during the coming months, but is widely expected to occur on or around May 6. For all three major parties, this Legislative session will be predominantly about positioning for the coming election.

During its current mandate, the Liberal Government spent significantly on social programs and infrastructure, while positioning those policies as essential public investments in the well-being of Ontarians. In the coming months, and especially in Budget 2018, expect the Government to table policies and spending that reflect that narrative.

Currently, much of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party’s attention is focused on its March 10 Leadership Election. Tanya Granic Allen, Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, Caroline Mulroney, and – as of Friday – Patrick Brown are vying to be Party Leader. Expect the PCs, regardless of who takes the full-time Leader’s role, to focus their criticisms of the Liberals on economic policy and fiscal management – and to position Election 2018 as a referendum on Kathleen Wynne.

For the NDP, this Legislative session is one of the final opportunities to present a compelling narrative that it is the best option for progressive government in Ontario. The NDP will use the coming months and budget cycle to attack the Liberals as false progressives who are not making sufficient investments in social programs, such as healthcare and childcare.

Key Issues – In Depth

Liberal Party

During the Legislative session, the Liberals will tout their Government’s policies (such as Pharmacare and minimum wage increases) and Ontario’s strong economic performance (Ontario’s real GDP growth has outpaced all G7 countries over the last three years). The message being pushed by the Liberals is that the Government’s social justice policies have benefited Ontarians and grown the economy. The fact that Ontario shed approximately 59,300 part-time jobs in January – the same month that the Government upped the minimum wage to $14/hour – may undermine that message. Therefore, expect Finance Minister Charles Sousa to introduce measures to offset the effects of the minimum wage hike on certain industries.

The Liberals will also position carbon pricing as a wedge issue, given that every PC Party Leadership candidate – except for Patrick Brown – has pledged to not impose a cap and trade system or a carbon tax. The existing cap and trade program created a significant revenue stream for the Government, and polling indicates that a plurality of voters support carbon pricing. As such, expect the Liberals to emphasize the cap and trade program and the green technology investments that it is supporting.

Progressive Conservative Party

The Official Opposition’s approach to this Legislative session is complicated by the fact that the PC Party will have a new Leader less than a month after the Legislature convenes. At least until March 10, Interim Leader Vic Fedeli will act as Leader of the Official Opposition in the Legislature. Mr. Fedeli, who previously served as the PC Party Finance Critic, has significant experience leading attacks on the Liberal Party’s economic policies and fiscal management.

Much of the new PC Leader’s focus will be on building a campaign team and tweaking the Party’s Election Platform – unless Patrick Brown regains the leadership mantle, in which case he would likely proceed with the current People’s Guarantee platform fully intact. Regardless of how the leadership race plays out, expect the PC Party’s messaging in the coming months to focus on discrediting the Government’s economic agenda (especially job creation and small business policies), accusing the Government of fiscal mismanagement, and opposing carbon pricing. The PCs want to keep the focus of the election on Premier Wynne and the Liberals, so stakeholders should not expect any bold new policy proposals from the Official Opposition in the meantime.

New Democratic Party

Currently being marginalized on the political spectrum by the Government’s leftist policies and drowned out in the media by the PC Party’s Leadership race, the NDP are having difficulty attracting attention. Expect the Party’s messaging in the coming months to portray itself as more progressive than the Liberals and as a scandal-free left-of-centre option for voters. Given the Liberal Party’s current middling public polling numbers, the opportunity is there for the NDP to assume the role of Official Opposition or, at a stretch, form government in June.

Budget 2018

The Budget will be tabled in March or April, effectively making it the Liberal Party’s Election Platform. In the past several Budgets, the Government has focused on investments in social services and major infrastructure projects. That will not change now: Expect the Budget to feature new spending on healthcare, child care, education, and transit. The Liberals will argue that many of those investments would be cut by a PC Government. The Government will tout Budget 2018 as the second straight balanced fiscal plan. The opposition parties, especially the PCs, will counter that the Budget is not balanced at all, given program costs and interest payments measuring in the billions that have been deferred to the future.

Upcoming Legislation and Regulations

Currently, the legislative docket is fairly bare, leaving an opportunity for the Liberals to introduce bills that mirror the Party’s electoral priorities and corner the opposition parties on wedge issues. Aside from the Budget, do not expect major policymaking to occur during this Legislative session – with the possible exception of already well-advanced measures from the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services and the Ministry of Labour. However, the Government is seeking feedback on its regulatory approach to legalized cannabis. In December 2017, the Government passed a Bill outlining its plans to comply with the pending Federal legislation regarding the lawful use, sale, and distribution of cannabis.

Election Watch 

Premier Kathleen Wynne has already been finetuning and testing election messaging while touring the Province in recent weeks. Expect that to continue, including an aggressive post-budget publicity tour by the Premier and her Ministers. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party is expected to announce a number of ‘star candidates’ in strategic ridings in the coming months.

The winner of the PC Party Leadership will need to quickly brand themselves and their policies. In any event, the Party will continue to try to position itself as a credible government-in-waiting and look to keep the focus of public debate on a four-term Liberal government that current polling suggests a majority of voters is growing tired of.

What this Means for You

For stakeholders, the key takeaway is that the time to advocate for your policy goals is now.  On one hand, getting issues on the radar of the Government and making measurable progress will become increasingly difficult as the dynamics of election campaigning take hold. However, all three major parties are looking to build stakeholders relations and solidify the topics of their election platforms, which provides an opening for election-style advocacy in the coming months.