Today, the Ontario Legislature resumes after its traditional Christmas/Winter break. The Legislature last sat on December 8, 2020.
The Government returns to the House in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent government interventions across the province seem to have been effective as the number of reported cases has been decreasing and the Government is now lifting restrictions on a regional basis. Notwithstanding this positive outlook, the House will continue to work under all-party protocols with limited in-person participation and agreed voting. Spectators and visitors will continue to be banned from the Legislature.
COVID-19 will continue to dominate the airwaves as the vaccine inoculation process finally rolls out in earnest this week. The Government will continue to defend its COVID-19 actions as the Opposition is expected to focus on the pandemic response.
Last week’s update by the Minister of Finance, clearly indicted that the Government’s immediate priority is to continue with initiatives to keep Ontarians safe and focus on economic challenges later. Having said that, as the vaccination program progresses, the Government is likely to shift to an economic recovery focus, which may possibly come before the end of the current session in June.
Expect Federal-Provincial relations to dominate the session as well. If the Federal Government delivers vaccines in March and into the spring, as promised, the onus will shift to the province to ensure efficient distribution. The provincial system is still untested and has many challenges before being deemed successful. If the Federal Government does not produce the promised doses, look for the Provincial Government to step-up its attack on vaccine availability and likely move to more aggressive tactics.
It is quite possible that the success/failure of the vaccine process will determine the timing of the next Federal Election. Regardless of political affiliations, the bond between the provincial Premiers has remained strong through the pandemic and should continue as long as the vaccine process operates smoothly. Premier Ford continues to be the unofficial leader in this group and will not hesitate to speak out when warranted. He has been willing to give the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, and even supported them by criticizing the pharmaceutical suppliers. This cordial relationship will continue so long as federally-contracted vaccines are delivered on-time and in sufficient quantities.
If there has been a benefit from COVID-19, it appears to be the strengthening of the relationship between the Premier and the Mayor of Toronto. Premier Ford and Mayor Tory are working well together which bodes well for future issues. The Ford Government is beginning to look forward to a Provincial Election in 2022. A stronger relationship with the popular Mayor of Toronto can be beneficial to the provincial Conservatives, particularly given the critically important seats in Toronto and the GTA.
Budget 2021 will be delivered by the end of March. Look for it to continue to offer assistance to Ontarians as the pandemic moves into the final stages. A likely indication of the economic recovery path can be expected as well.
The tone of the Budget will be determined by pandemic conditions over the next month. If the pandemic has regained strength, look for additional spending to assist Ontarians in need. If it continues to recede, the focus will turn to economic recovery.
Last week, NDP Opposition Leader, Andrea Horwath, shuffled several critic positions, signalling a change to NDP strategy in the House. The most notable change was the promotion of Peggy Sattler (MPP for London West) to the role of House Leader, replacing veteran Gilles Bisson (MPP for Timmins). Bisson has been the NDP’s House Leader for over a decade. With the Election on the horizon, expect the NDP to focus on the failures of the Ford Government during the pandemic, raising issues such as long-term care. Other issues on their radar include low-income housing and environmental protections.
With minimum representation in the House, the Ontario Liberals continue to battle for attention. The Party is still fragile and without a seat, Leader Steven Del Duca has been challenged to get any message across. In this session the Liberals will remain vocal on education issues seeing that as their strength in comparison to the Government’s performance on the file. Del Duca and his Caucus maintain that the Government has not delivered adequate funding to ensure the safety of students, and has not acted on important measures such as smaller class sizes, sufficient cleaning supplies, upgraded ventilation and new classroom space.
The Legislature is scheduled to sit until June 3, 2021 when it will likely rise for the summer break. Look for the Fall 2021 to be the unofficial kick-off to the 2022 Provincial Election.
A Federal Election could happen anytime given the current minority Parliament and the uncertainly surrounding the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations nationally.
Impact on Advocacy
While the obvious focus is COVID-19, the Government continues to operate on a wide range of issues and the Legislature is expected to sit for the full spring session. Legislation that was put on the back-burner during the pandemic will start to be brought forward again. Clients can expect the Government to use its majority to move legislation quickly through the Legislature, meaning the time for response or engagement will be brief.
Clients should expect to do business as usual – the difference being that most meetings and interactions will continue to be virtual and through video-conferencing, a practice many are comfortable with following 2020. Staff remain focused and available to assist with legislative matters. Advocacy Days can still be planned by video-conferencing and the past year has shown these virtual sessions can be effective.