As the fall season starts to settle in, election season in Ontario is clearly already in full swing. For Members of Provincial Parliament, the Thanksgiving week break in the Legislature is an opportunity to touch base with constituents and reconnect with local communities. For keen observers like us with a direct interest in Ontario public affairs, and our clients, it is an opportunity to take stock of the first part of the Fall sitting and what it all means for the provincial election in June 2018.
It may only be six months prior to the writ (when the Legislature is dissolved and the election campaign officially begins). But most people still aren’t paying much attention to Ontario politics.
The three main political parties are using this “calm” period to their advantage by testing out campaign themes and messages to figure out what sticks. At this stage, it appears the three parties are in a battle for the center – however each may define that political ground – and each are using “trust” to serve as the bridge to victory.
The first questions posed by each party in the Legislature to kick off the session are good indicators of the campaign themes likely to be used by the opposition parties. In early September, PC Leader Patrick Brown started off by stating Ontarians are “working harder, paying more and getting less,” with Hydro prices as the leading example. Meanwhile New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath started with questions to essentially remind the people of bribery trials.
The most telling aspect of these questions is the fact that neither signaled a desire to fundamentally address public policy.
The Liberals have also gone on the offensive at times, such as when they recently tried to create a wedge for PC Leader Patrick Brown by introducing a Bill in the Legislature to create “safe access zones” around abortion clinics – a tactical move that backfired when the PCs moved its immediate passage—a move the Liberals voted against.
In general, each party’s messaging tracks are attempts to sow mistrust in their opponents.
Many are presuming the 2018 election is a two-horse race between the PCs and the Liberals. The PCs are trying to cement this viewpoint, essentially painting the Liberals as the left-leaning option.
The PCs have shown procedural and political skill in this session. There was the safe access zones legislation mentioned above. Similarly, they called for “maximum temperatures” in schools – at once highlighting potential mismanagement of school facilities (i.e. who do you trust with your kids?) and ensuring a media contrast with the Premier moving a major meeting with municipal leaders to take advantage of a taxpayer-funded air conditioner. Then there was Patrick Brown’s refusal to back down from appearing to confuse the Premier “taking the stand” vs. “standing trial,” allowing media stories about the Premier and a bribery trial to remain linked on the front pages.
Ultimately, these instances show the PCs are looking to put a spotlight on competence and trust. A new commercial, launched during this session, makes that focus even clearer.
Pinning down what the Tories’ policy positions will be, though, is proving harder. The PC policy resolutions were posted this week and most follow the middle of the road pattern. The party’s upcoming policy convention in Toronto on November 25th may make all this clearer. Watch this space.
Andrea Horwath’s NDP had a tougher time gaining the spotlight. The Liberals are trying to squeeze them out on the left flank with new measures to: increase minimum wage; provide free prescription drugs to children and youth; and control rent increases. This has caused some to ignore the NDP – almost viewing them as an afterthought. Particularly at this early stage, that would be a mistake.
The NDP have also been leaning on “trust” – focusing on issues around ethics, rather than policy. The NDP has the most popular party leader and polls show the public generally like the Government’s policy direction. So, the NDP figures it has an opportunity by stressing Ontarians can “trust” the NDP to pursue similar policies ethically.
The NDP has to make sure they don’t overdo it, though. For example, towards the end of the session, they called for increased hospital funding to deal with overcrowding, going so far as to accuse Minister Hoskins of “warehousing” seniors as part of a proposed plan to open 150 beds for lower acuity Alternate Levels of Care (ALC) patients at Humber Regional Hospital’s Finch site. The accusation is a good soundbite, but has little regard for the increase in healthcare spending over the years.
The governing Liberals have a number of policy measures to show for their time in power. In seeking to promote “fairness and opportunity,” the Liberals have introduced measures to help the less fortunate, increased spending on healthcare and education and also balanced the budget. Objectively, this is pretty standard center ground stuff.
At the same time, the Premier’s “activist center” is resulting in significant amounts of legislation working through the Legislature. At this point, if a Bill is receiving debate time, one should expect it to be passed before the election.
Recent polling numbers show the PCs in the lead, with Forum Research indicating that the NDP is in second and the Liberals just behind; most other pollsters have the Liberals now in second place. While recent legislative initiatives such as minimum wages and enhanced rent controls have some traction with voters, fully 70% indicate they believe it is time for a change in government, while the Premier’s own approval ratings struggle to break the 20% barrier. So, the opposition’s focus on trust and Kathleen Wynne instead of major policy difference appears, at the moment, to be paying off. But these are early days and if the previous three elections are any indication (remember, the Tories were ahead in the months leading up to those elections too), much can change in the writ period during the election.
Much of this depends on the mood of the public and on regional nuances, which surely all parties are watching closely. While most people believe it’s time for a change, there doesn’t appear to be an appetite for major change. The center remains the hallowed ground of Ontario politics.
This final legislative session before the writ is likely to be punchy, busy…and potentially short.
The budget is likely to be introduced a little earlier than in previous years and it may serve as a quasi-election platform for the Liberals. Any of the three main parties can legitimately expect to form the next government – either on their own or in coalition with one of the other parties.
For those seeking to engage with the Ontario government, now is the time to do so. November 9th represents six months before the writ period, when certain rules about campaign spending kick in. As always, the Sussex team is happy to help you navigate this rapidly evolving landscape.