The Top Line
Now past the halfway point of its majority mandate, the Liberal Government of Ontario today used a Speech from the Throne to turn the page on a summer where its agenda got off-track, and to showcase a policy plan that the Party hopes will grow the economy and create jobs ahead of Election 2018.
The Speech recommitted the Wynne Government to an ‘activist-centre’ approach as the best way to build Ontario and prepare the Province for future challenges – while at the same time resetting the specifics of the legislative agenda. Since 2014, the Government has allocated billions in new spending on infrastructure, education and social programs – and it sought to emphasize the fruits of that spending in today’s Speech.
However, the Speech also had to deal with mounting voter concerns over rising electricity prices; in response to which the Government proposed a new measure to reduce electricity bills for consumers and small businesses via an HST rebate. The new focus on managing electricity fees may be recognized as an acknowledgement that the Government has been widely perceived as insensitive to rising living costs
For their part, the Liberals sought to frame the announcement as a consumer-friendly measure that is possible because of the Government’s progress on bringing Ontario’s finances into line. In that light, the Speech made an unequivocal commitment that the 2017/18 Budget will be balanced – a promise that the Government has made repeatedly over the last two years. The Speech also stated that the Province’s debt-to-GDP ratio is “leveling” and will start to decline.
Looking forward, the Speech re-committed the Government to launching a provincial cap-and-trade program in 2017 – which will transform the Province’s business environment.
The Speech noted that Ontario’s economy grew faster than that of the U.S. and all other G7 jurisdictions over the first quarter of 2016. In that context, balancing the Budget, while trying to improve service levels and quality of life in the Province, will be the Liberal Party’s hopeful recipe for the next election.
Government Priorities for the Fall Legislative Sitting
The Throne Speech outlined several policy areas on which the Wynne Government will focus in the coming Parliamentary Session. Specifically, notable topics are:
The Government will introduce legislation this session to create an on-bill rebate equal to the provincial portion of the HST. The rebate, which will go into effect January 1, 2017, is equal to 8% of the average electricity bill. Small businesses and all consumers will receive the rebate.
Larger businesses will benefit from expansion of eligibility for the Industrial Conservation Initiative, which supports commercial and industrial ratepayers in moving electricity use to off-peak hours.
The Wynne Government continues to believe that innovative, low-carbon industries are the way of the future. The Speech promised continued spending through the previously-existing $400 million Business Growth Initiative and the Jobs and Prosperity Fund to attract such businesses to Ontario. Also promised were more targeted trade missions in key markets.
In January 2017, the Ontario Cap-and-Trade Program will start up, with revenues to the Province being allocated to greenhouse gas reduction projects and incentives for households and businesses to reduce emissions.
The Wynne Administration believes that support for updating workforce skills should come from employers and the Government. As such, the Province reiterated it will work with unions, industry, and educators to develop new skills training projects – particularly through the Ontario Youth Jobs Strategy and the Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel.
At the grade school level, the Government will implement a new math strategy, in response to flagging standardized math testing scores across Ontario.
At the post-secondary level, a new Ontario Student Grant will provide free tuition for students from low and middle-income families, while also increasing access to interest-free and low-cost loans, beginning for the 2017/18 school year.
The Government will also make investments in post-secondary research and lab infrastructure, and support campus-linked business accelerators.
After the recent negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association on doctors’ fees, the Government used the Speech to argue that health care spending should be directed where it will “help patients most” and “not only to the highest-billing physicians or highly-paid administrators”.
In that context, the Government will continue a suite of hospital renovations and rebuilds, along with enhancing home care and increasing financial assistance for seniors’ prescription drug costs.
The next two years will also see a major investment in First Nations health, through the previously announced Indigenous Health Action Plan, which will spend $222 million in three years.
Transit and Infrastructure
The Government will continue allocation of $160 billion in spending over 12 years, with notable upcoming investments in Light Rail installation and GO Train system updates in the GTA. Highway access to the Ring of Fire also remains on the Liberal Party’s radar.
Due to the Federal Government’s initiative to increase the CPP, the ORPP has now been abandoned, but the Government used the Speech to state it will continue to play a leadership role on retirement planning.
The Legislative Assembly was prorogued to accommodate the Throne Speech, so all legislation that was on the Order Paper before the Speech now must be re-introduced – and the Government indicated that it will do so quickly.
Election Finance Reform Legislation
Notably, the Speech promised to reintroduce the Finance Reform legislation this week, with all amendments agreed to at the Committee stage prior to prorogation. The legislation will prohibit MPPs in all Parties from attending fundraising events.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown blamed high hydro rates on the Liberal Government’s energy policy and sale of Hydro One shares. He too argued that the HST should not apply to electricity bills. Brown said his focus for the coming session will be on holding the Government to account on hydro rates, health care cuts, and job creation.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was unhappy with the content of the Speech and pledged in response to focus on advocating for everyday Ontarians. The NDP wants the Government to completely eliminate HST on electricity bills and stop the sale of Hydro One shares.
Today’s Throne Speech was the Liberal Party’s reaction to a summer in which the Government was driven off-message. In that light, the priorities laid out in the Speech are the Wynne Administration’s effort to highlight its policy plan and accomplishments to date. The content of the Speech effectively establishes the battle ground for the next election – with the Liberal Party touting its investments, while pledging to balance the Budget and creating a consumer-friendly rebate. The Opposition Parties are adamant that the Liberals’ policies are not effective at protecting consumers, addressing the rising cost-of-living, or creating jobs – and they will make that case to voters between now and 2018.
TSA stands ready to assist your organization in advocating for your issues within Ontario’s dynamic political environment. Please contact us if you have any questions.