The Top Line
Members of the Provincial Parliament (MPPs) returned to Queen’s Park today for the Winter/Spring 2017 session of the Ontario Legislative Assembly. With Election 2018 nearing (anticipated on or before June 7, 2018), stakeholders should expect the Parties to use this legislative session to establish main messaging for their respective election campaigns.
Premier Wynne and her team will argue that the Liberal Government has successfully led Ontario through challenging economic times, while avoiding austerity measures and making important investments in infrastructure and public services. The Government will be able to point to some strong recent economic fundamentals to bolster that argument, as Ontario’s economic growth outpaced that of Canada and all other G7 countries in 2016.
However, perceived high hydro rates and an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly short of full employment (6.4% in January 2017) both give the Opposition Parties topics on which to attack the Government’s record. The Progressive Conservative and New Democratic Parties will argue that the Liberals’ policies have hurt Ontarians and acted as a barrier to job creation. Expect the Opposition to particularly focus on the issues of cost of living and employment in Ontario as key areas where the Government has fallen short.
With that in mind, please consider the following issues as the big items to watch during the Winter/Spring 2017 legislative session.
Budget 2017/18 and the Economy
The annual budget is always the centrepiece of the Winter/Spring legislative session. This year’s budget has added significance because the Government has repeatedly pledged that Budget 2017/18 will be balanced. Ontario’s 2016/17 Third Quarter Finances, released today, seem to place the Government on track to keep that promise – the Province’s projected 2016/17 deficit is the smallest figure since before the 2007 financial crisis.
Budget 2017/18 will be the second-last budget before Election 2018, so stakeholders should expect the Government to use the Budget in part to position itself for that coming political battle. Strategic investments meant to appeal to voters are likely to be announced as part of the Budget, including spending on healthcare, childcare, public transit, and infrastructure projects.
Should Budget 2017/18 be balanced, the Liberal Government will trumpet that as proof of their fiscal management bona fides, arguing that their policies led Ontario through challenging economic times and back to strong growth. The Opposition will continue to argue that Ontario’s economy has not grown enough due to Liberal mismanagement and is running below full capacity.
Despite espousing a progressive agenda and making significant investments in public services, the Liberal Government has not been able to shake a perception amongst some that it is insensitive to Ontarians’ struggles with the day-to-day cost of living. Stakeholders should expect the Liberals to take action to change that image during the Winter/Spring legislative session. For example, during the Winter recess of Parliament, after sustained pressure from her Greater Toronto Area Caucus members, the Premier announced that she will not allow Toronto Mayor John Tory to levy road tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway – a policy that would have increased the daily cost of living for many commuters to Toronto’s workplaces. That measure to stem the rise of service user fees should be viewed as a sign of policies to come in 2017/18.
In particular, perceived high hydro rates are an issue that has made the Government the target of sustained complaints from taxpayers and criticism from the Opposition Parties. During the Winter recess of Parliament, the Premier and several Cabinet Ministers conducted public consultations on hydro rates. Then, on January 1, 2017, a hydro credit that refunds consumers and small businesses the 8% provincial HST on their electricity bills came into effect. Those measures are unlikely to put the issue to bed, and stakeholders should expect the Government to take further measures to reduce the burden of hydro rates.
Since Budget 2014/15, the Liberal Government has pursued an agenda of “building Ontario up” – a program of large-scale and wide-ranging public investments and infrastructure spending. About $135 billion worth of infrastructure funding remains to be allocated in Budget 2017/18, so stakeholders should expect the Liberal Government to widely publicize its infrastructure investments during the Winter/Spring legislative session.
Already, the Province has launched an online vote to decide which of 13 special projects suggested by ordinary Ontarians should get funding in the Budget. Moreover, linked to its decision to bar road tolls in Toronto, the Government recently provided an increase (a doubling in many cases) of the gas tax to be delivered to Ontario municipalities.
Subsequent infrastructure announcements, both major and minor, are likely to be a key component of the Government’s spending and messaging agenda in the lead-up to Election 2018.
Several key pieces of Government legislation are set to continue through the legislative process during the Winter/Spring session. Notable Bills include:
Bill 27 Burden Reduction Act, 2016 – Introduced on September 27, 2016, passed Second Reading on November 29, 2016, and now awaiting consideration by the Committee on General Government.
Bill 27 is a package of legislative amendments that are intended to reduce regulatory burdens and practices that cost businesses time and money, while protecting the environment and health standards, and enhancing worker safety.
Bill 59 Putting Consumers First Act (Consumer Protection Statute Law Amendment), 2016 – Introduced on November 3, 2016, passed Second Reading on November 30, 2016, and now awaiting consideration by the Committee on Social Policy.
Bill 59 would make changes to three consumer protection regimes, by establishing mandatory licensing for home inspectors, banning unsolicited door-to-door sales of certain home appliances, and imposing stricter regulation on alternative financial services (including payday loans).
Bill 68 Modernizing Ontario’s Municipal Legislation Act, 2016 – Introduced on November 16, 2016 and now awaiting Second Reading debate.
Bill 68 would make changes to the three pieces of legislation (the Municipal Act, the City of Toronto Act, and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act) which establish the roles, responsibilities, and conflict of interest rules for Ontario’s municipalities. The proposed changes would guarantee parental leave for parents elected to Municipal Governments, give municipalities greater power to address climate change through by-laws on green construction, and give municipalities broader investment discretion to fund spending on local infrastructure.
What This Means to You
As Election 2018 nears, the Government’s window for major policymaking is narrowing. During the Winter/Spring 2017 session, Liberal decision-makers will be focussed on implementing already-announced policies and establishing a case for the Government to be re-elected.
Stakeholders should keep in mind that proposals to the Government that have an implementation timeline beyond 2018 may be on the backburner in the coming year, in favour of a focus on program deliverables in 2017. In particular, expect the Government to focus on cost-saving measures for service users and consumers, job creation, and touting the regional and local impacts of infrastructure spending and investments in public services.
Meanwhile, outside the Legislature, a key component of Election 2018 will be each Party’s policy platform – and those documents will begin to take shape over the course of 2017. Getting long-term policy proposals into Party platforms is a key way for stakeholders to ensure their future needs are not forgotten during the run-up to election season.
With TSA’s in-depth understanding of the Ontario Liberal Government and its decision makers, our firm is your ideal government relations service provider for the dynamic political environment in Ontario. Please contact us if you have any questions.