Return of the Ontario Legislative Assembly

The Top Line

Today, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario will reconvene for its 2017/18 session.  Stakeholders should monitor the session, because the three main parties will use it to develop, test, and hone policies and themes for their campaigns during the Election 2018, which will occur on June 7, 2018.

The governing Liberals, lead by Premier Kathleen Wynne, will focus on demonstrating that its policies are driving economic growth and ensuring that growth benefits low-income and middle-class Ontarians.  A narrative of inclusive economic growth has been central to the Government’s agenda since its first post-Election 2014 budget, and, over the course of 2017, Premier Wynne has increasingly emphasized those themes.  For example, recently-announced policies include: Increasing the minimum wage to $15, free prescription drugs for people 25 years of age or younger, free post-secondary school tuition for students from low-income households, and a 25% deduction off hydro bills.  The Liberals will hope that their progressive agenda marginalizes the NDP, thereby creating a two-horse race in Election 2018.

In opposition to the Liberals, Patrick Brown, leader of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party, and Andrea Horwath, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), will argue, in differing ways, that Liberal policies have hurt Ontario.  Brown and Horwath spent the summer touring Ontario, increasing their visibility with voters and testing select policy proposals with the electorate.

Since winning the PC Party leadership, Mr. Brown has sought to make inroads with urban and suburban voters, and build a more inclusive party that appeals to groups that are not always aligned with the PCs.  During the Fall, look for Mr. Brown to craft a policy narrative that highlights traditional Conservative economic themes like strong fiscal management, support for small businesses, and reducing taxes.  The NDP will see a need to differentiate itself from the increasingly progressive agenda being advanced by Premier Wynne.  Watch for Ms. Horwath to position the NDP as the public’s champion and the truly progressive party in Ontario.  Expect the NDP to argue that the Liberal Government’s track record is one of cuts to public services and the sale of public assets.

Major Policy Issues

In the foregoing context, below are a few issues that stakeholders can expect will dominate political debate through to the campaign.

The Economy

Since 2014, the narrative of inclusive economic growth has been central to the Wynne Government’s agenda, and that will not change now.  For example, late last week, the Premier welcomed news that unemployment is at a 16-year low, but stressed that a need remains to create more “opportunity and fairness” in uncertain times.

In the coming months, expect the Government to continue to highlight that Ontario’s economic growth is outpacing many other G7 sub-jurisdictions.  New and ongoing foreign investments in the Province will also be touted.  In the context of the Trump Presidency and the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations, the Premier will seek to demonstrate her leadership and economic management abilities through continued engagement of American politicians and business leaders.

Later in the legislative session, Finance Minister Charles Sousa will release the annual Fall Economic Statement (FES), which will be an opening for the Government to talk up its spending on public services and demonstrate that it is on track to keep its promise of balancing the budget in 2018.

Contrastingly, the opposition parties will argue that the Province would be better off without the Liberals managing the treasury.  Look for Patrick Brown and the PCs to criticize the Government’s fiscal management and argue that taxpayers are overburdened.  Meanwhile, watch for the NDP to argue that the likely coming balanced budget was achieved by selling public assets and undermining public services.

Cap and Trade

In June, the second cap and trade program auction of greenhouse gas emission allowances generated an estimated $504,182,190.  In 2017 alone, projected proceeds from the program are $1.9 billion.  By law, those proceeds must be allocated to projects that reduce pollution, such as public transit, energy retrofits, and electric vehicle infrastructure.  The Government will argue that such projects are essential investments in the Province’s environmental and economic wellbeing.

The NDP has been generally supportive of cap and trade.  However, the program is a lightning rod for Conservative criticism, especially since a study commissioned by the Government itself projected that the program would add 4.3 cents per litre to the price of gasoline and approximately $80 per year to the price of natural gas home heating, along with other indirect costs to consumers.  Patrick Brown argues that cap and trade makes Ontario’s economy uncompetitive and overburdens taxpayers.  The PC Party vows to end the cap and trade program and create a revenue neutral carbon tax instead.

Employment Standards 

In May, the Government tabled legislation that would make several changes to Ontario’s employment standards.  The most notable (and controversial) of the proposed changes is an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour.  The increase would be phased-in, with the wage rising to $14 per hour on January 1, 2018 and then to $15 per hour in January 2019.  The legislation is already a battleground for the Liberals and Conservatives.  Expect the Liberals to continue arguing that the plan benefits working class Ontarians, and the Conservatives to claim that the policy makes Ontario’s economy uncompetitive, ultimately reducing employment. Bill 148, the required legislation, is set to be debated this legislative session.

Election Campaign Developments

All of the parties are now in advanced-planning for Election 2018, developing their policy platforms and selecting riding-level candidates.

Despite ongoing rumours that Premier Wynne will resign, she has repeatedly committed to leading the Liberal Party in Election 2018.  However, the Liberals have suffered from a number of members deciding not to contest the election, including Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development, and Glenn Murray, former Minister of Environment and Climate Change.  Contrastingly, Finance Minister Charles Sousa and Education Minister Mitzie Hunter have both signed-on for the election.

So-called ‘star candidates’ have made a splash ahead of the election, in different ways.  Patrick Brown scored a coup by recruiting Caroline Mulroney, a lawyer and philanthropist, and mother of four, whose father is former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.  Conversely, the NDP’s depth may be reduced if on-leave Deputy Leader Jagmeet Singh wins the Federal NDP leadership race.  Expect all the parties to seek more high-profile candidates in the coming months.

What This Means for You

The Government continues to operate, so, despite the looming election, a number of policy consultations are ongoing and significant legislation will be tabled during the 2017/18 session.  For example, on Friday, Ministers Sousa, Naqvi, and Hoskins announced Ontario’s framework for the legal sale of cannabis.

Stakeholders should continue to engage the Government.  Plenty of opportunities, including the upcoming FES and Budget 2018, remain to make your voice heard and advance policy priorities.  However, now is also the opportune time to build relationships with all of the parties, as they begin to prepare their policy platforms and strategies for Election 2018.

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