NATIONAL’s Jane Taber previews the year ahead in Ontario politics, a year in which the political agenda will be shaped by the multiple challenges faced by Premier Wynne in her last full year before the next election.
Kathleen Wynne is running out of time. The Ontario Premier faces the electorate again in 2018, making this a most crucial year.
She needs to get her policies in order; she needs to reconnect with voters and lay the necessary groundwork if she wants to win another majority government.
For her, however, 2017 has not started well.
Ontarians are angry over soaring electricity rates, her Liberal government is in a pitched fight with the province’s 28,000 doctors, who have been without a contract for three years. Ms. Wynne is making efforts to buy labour peace with the teachers, whose contracts are to expire in the summer.
With health and education making up more than half of provincial spending, the last thing Ms. Wynne needs heading into an election is to be fighting on both fronts.
Facing accusations that her government was selling access to cabinet ministers at political fundraisers, Ms. Wynne changed the political fundraising rules, making it much harder for political parties to raise money.
The new stricter rules came into effect on January 1. Now, her party has to find new ways to look for cash in advance of the 2018 election campaign.
And after nearly 14 years in power, the Liberal government is looking stale. This should come as no surprise; it happens to all governments that have been around for a long time.
But there’s more than just time and fatigue at play. Ms. Wynne’s government and that of her predecessor are tainted by scandal. Several senior Liberal aides have been charged with offences related to deleting emails and offering bribes. Their trials are scheduled for later this year.
Just before Christmas the Financial Accountability Officer raised doubts about the Wynne government’s promise to balance the books this year.
He also noted that Ontario’s debt will increase by $64 billion over the next five years to $370 billion. It has one of the highest sub-sovereign debts in the world.
Added to the mix is the unknown south of the border and Donald Trump. He is threatening to
“tweak” NAFTA – and there has been talk of late about a border tax on vehicles coming into the U.S. This could negatively affect Ontario’s manufacturing sector.
To make matters worse, the politician she closely embraced – Justin Trudeau – is facing his own issues. His missteps – such as spending Christmas on the Aga Khan’s private island with some of his close friends and his over-the-top tribute to late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro – are not helping his popularity. Basking in his glow may become more difficult.
And the sunny ways he talked about are not translating to federal-provincial relations, where Ontario, and several other provinces, are still at odds with the Trudeau government, holding out for more much-needed funding for health care.
Given all this, it is no surprise she and her government are doing poorly in the polls. In fact, some Liberals are wondering if she should even run again in 2018.
Defying these naysayers, the Premier has told reporters she is going nowhere.
Some public opinion polls have shown the Ontario Progressive Conservatives would win a majority government if an election were held. The PC Party is led by rookie Patrick Brown, who is not well known to many Ontarians. What they do know about him is what the Wynne Liberals have told them – that he is a right-wing social conservative.
But his campaign is about to try to change that.
The PC leader’s campaign chair, Walied Soliman, told The Toronto Star the party is launching three 30-second digital ads as a pre-emptive strike, fearing the Liberals will “unleash a campaign of unprecedented ferocity against Patrick.”
However, Mr. Brown has never led an election campaign – he could blow up. It has happened before.
And Ms. Wynne has started sowing the seeds for her recovery.
To mitigate the rage over electricity rates, Ms. Wynne announced late last year her government would remove the provincial portion of the HST from electricity bills. This will cost her government $1 billion a year.
And now the CBC is reporting that Ms. Wynne is “considering two key changes that could see hydro bills drop in the range of eight per cent or more.”
“With the high cost of electricity the top concern for voters in Ontario, and Wynne's popularity at an all-time low, the Liberals have signalled that tackling hydro bills is their number one priority heading into the spring budget,” notes the CBC.
In addition, the Wynne government’s promised “free tuition” program for some post-secondary students also comes into effect this year.
And, the upcoming budget may offer even more goodies for voters, whether the province can afford them or not.
While President Trump may be talking tough on trade, there could be positive implications to his style of leadership for her. His right wing views may turn off Ontarians, and make her brand of progressive liberalism look more pleasing.
Recent history provides some good lessons for political prognosticators: polls can be wrong as can be pollsters, the electorate is volatile and campaigns count.
Kathleen Wynne is not only competitive, she’s a good campaigner.
The clock is still running – so don’t write her off just yet.