It may not quite be an election year in Ontario, but voting day isn't actually that far off, and the 2017 spring and fall sittings of the legislature at Queen’s Park will be the government’s last chances to roll out even minor policy changes before facing voters in 2018. (Any changes announced next year will be too late to actually come into effect — though they’ll make fine fodder for campaigning.) Meanwhile, the Liberals are also dearly hoping they can shake off some of the scandals that dogged them through 2016 and repair their badly damaged reputation with the electorate.
So what’s in store for this year? Liberals who spoke with TVO.org on condition of anonymity stuck to generalities, but gave some indication of where the government is headed.
To begin with the obvious: the results of last November's presidential election have alarmed policymakers in this province as much as anywhere, given Trump’s rhetoric about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and concerns about the potential effects on southwestern Ontario’s large auto sector. And while the Liberals can fairly claim that the overall economic picture in Ontario is better than they’re getting credit for (RBC Economics predicts Ontario will lead the country in growth for 2017), given Trump’s success in economically distressed regions the Liberals are anxious about how the province’s wealth is clustered in just a few cities.
Our economy is marked by "five solitudes," according to a report late last year from the Fraser Institute, that correspond to the five major regions of Ontario. The report shows that employment outside the Toronto and Ottawa regions still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 recession. These kinds of reports are highly sensitive to their initial assumptions — putting Waterloo in the Toronto region instead of southwestern Ontario, for example — and the Liberals aren’t wild about the Fraser Institute’s conservative bent in general. But nobody argues with the basic point that in a jurisdiction as large as Ontario, concentrated growth in two or three large city-regions creates inequities in the rest of the province.
The policy problem for the Liberals is that there’s precious little guidance out there on how to balance regional growth, with many economists arguing it’s cheaper and easier to try to move people to places with greater economic opportunities than to try to create jobs in distressed towns and rural areas. The political problem is that after years of regions feeling excluded from decisions made in Toronto, it’s not clear the Liberals would actually benefit at the ballot box even if the economic picture in the rest of Ontario improved and they were to invest in local jobs in these depressed regions. Even if manufacturing jobs return to Ontario’s southwest, for example, rural communities will still be living with other decisions they feel they had little input on, such as the proliferation of wind turbines across the landscape.
The Liberals may have better luck with policies that aren’t specifically place-focused, but generally trying to help people make ends meet. This has already started, of course: as of Jan. 1 the Liberals have removed the provincial portion of the HST from electricity bills. Kathleen Wynne has said this isn’t the last we’ll hear about measures to reduce hydro costs, and presumably we’ll see something in the budget this spring. Given that the HST rebate is already going to cost the government about $1 billion annually, the next round of hydro relief may be more narrowly targeted at low-income peopl or rural areas cut off from cheaper natural gas, instead of a more broad-based (and more expensive) policy.
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But the biggest wallet-easing change the Liberals will be rolling out is the first year of the Ontario Student Grant. Announced in the 2016 budget, it will cover the average university or college tuition costs for any student whose parents make less than $83,000 a year. (Books, food, rent, and the other costs associated with post-secondary education are still up to the students and their families to cover, with more money available to people in greater need.) Liberals say moves like this are crucial to preserving the economic advantage of Ontario’s more-educated workforce, and point to a similar announcement in New York State as a sign of where governments are going in the 21st century. But if students and their parents are grateful for the help, and were to stay grateful until election day, the Liberals certainly wouldn’t mind.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of Liberal priorities — there will, of course, be news in the spring budget and the fall economic statement later in the year. The Liberals are still adamant that the province will finally have a balanced budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, though some grumbling about the disagreement between the Ministry of Finance and the Auditor General over the government’s accounting standards persists. It’s an arcane argument, but the magnitude of the disagreement ($1.5 billion in 2015’s accounts) could mean the difference between surplus and deficit.
The problem for any government is that the plans for a new year rarely stay intact by the beginning of February, much less the end of the year. Any number of things could derail at least some of their ambitions.
There’s climate policy, for one thing. While the Liberals are feeling proud about joining a cap-and-trade system with California and Quebec to further reduce the province’s greenhouse-gas emissions, California's experience has been uneven, with two failed auctions in 2016 before a more successful sale in November. Similar chaos in Ontario would tarnish a system the Liberals need to operate smoothly in its opening phase. If nothing else, they’re counting on cap-and-trade money to fund some popular promises, like expanded GO train service across the GTA.
Similarly, the Liberals will also need to eventually get signed agreements with Ontario’s doctors and teachers. The health and education sectors make up 57 per cent of the province’s spending and the government badly wants to achieve some labour peace on both these fronts before heading into an election. The current contracts with teachers expire in August, and negotiations between teacher unions and the government are expected to begin in the spring. Talks with doctors failed spectacularly last summer, with the Ontario Medical Association voting to reject the fee structure on offer from the province. The government tried again before Christmas, but the OMA has rejected that as well.
Then there are the reminders of premiers past. David Livingston and Laura Miller worked in Dalton McGuinty’s office and are charged with mischief and breach of trust in connection with the deletion of emails related to the decision to cancel two natural gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville before the 2011 election. Their trial starts in September and will almost certainly further complicate things for a government already stung on all matters electrical. The timing couldn’t be worse, from a Liberal perspective. It’s a reminder that for all the government’s claims that rising electricity prices are the cost of cleaner air, not all their energy policies have been so virtuous.
Oh, and thanks to David Orazietti’s resignation from the legislature in December, the premier will need to call a by-election in Sault Ste. Marie sometime before this summer. Orazietti was the first Liberal elected to the riding in 60 years, and the politics of northern Ontario don’t exactly make it a safe seat for the Liberals these days.
In short, it’s going to be a busy year for the Liberals, even as they gear up for the bigger fight in 2018. It’s their last shot at putting out policies designed to recover their standing in the polls before the election campaign begins. Expect it to be eventful.
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