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Ontario Election Year Insights

Published on
January 10, 2018

Happy new election year!

The legislative session is paused, set to resume in February (following the Family Day holiday) and leading to an election set for June 7, 2018. So, like we did in October, Sussex thought it was opportune to provide our clients with some insights into what is on the horizon for Ontario public affairs in the first part of 2018.

Welcome to Silly Season.

Arguably, we’ve been in silly season for a while already. But the coming weeks and months will only accentuate that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Take the legislative calendar, for example. Under normal circumstances, the Legislature would resume in mid-February and would run until the middle of June. With the election set for June 7, 2018 however, we can expect the legislative session to run no later than mid-April.

Clients lobbying Government to adopt new measures have a limited window left to do so and can still seek to get these included in the spring Budget. That budget likely will be introduced earlier than usual and will look much like a pre-election Liberal platform. It won’t pass before the election, but the purpose isn’t to ensure its passage in the time available – it’s to campaign on it.

Next consider the legislative agenda. Normally, there would be a number of Bills at various stages of consideration to progress through the Legislature over the session, with the Government intending to introduce further legislation.

You may have noticed the Fall session seemed particularly busy. You weren’t wrong. The traditional Government news release about regulation and fee changes coming into effect on Jan. 1 ran to 19 pages this year. Over 120 individual statutes were enacted or amended on the final day of the 2017 legislative session alone.

As a result, all of the major legislation has been passed and received Royal Assent. This list includes legislation setting out the framework for cannabis legalization; major changes to the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act, including the increase in the minimum wage; legislation to cut unnecessary red tape; omnibus health legislation; the suite of housing and rental protection measures; significant changes to the municipal planning and development decision-making process; reforms to the auto insurance system; measures to moderate hydro prices; changes to the construction lien act; as well as many consumer protection measures, including taking aim at ticket bots and cracking down on payday lenders.

There are some Bills left at the Committee stage, but nothing on which the governing Liberals plan to run. The cleared legislative decks do provide some runway to introduce and pass new signature legislation, should an issue present itself.

…And now for the politics

Expect to hear the words “fair”, “change” and “trust” a lot in the coming months. Throughout the Fall session, the NDP and Tories took every opportunity to fan the flames of mistrust in the Premier and the Liberals. The message that voters want a change in government is so strong, even the Premier seeks to paint herself as the change agent for Ontario. Oddly, though, expect to hear very little about significant policy differences between the parties.

As we’ve seen, the Liberals’ “activist centre” approach has in the process taken a left-of-centre turn, looking to crowd out the NDP in the process (and continually doing what they can to frame the election as only a choice between them and the PCs, who they paint as quite right wing). Meanwhile, the Tories have sounded rather centrist since Patrick Brown became leader. This centrist approach was cemented in their platform document (which many have commented could have been written by a Liberal – not necessarily approvingly from those with more conservative views), largely seeking to appeal to the middle class. Under normal circumstances, the advantage would appear to go to the Tories, however these are not normal times.

The conditions that gave rise to Donald Trump south of the border have relevance north of it. These include technological, environmental and demographic changes that are restructuring our economy and creating higher degrees of inequality that can result in populist tendencies among the electorate. Interestingly, though, whereas in other jurisdictions these forces have started to translate into a debate between “open” and “closed” societies, in Ontario, the debate continues to be “left” vs. “right”, with almost everyone agreeing on openness.

The Tories:
The Tories started the Fall by hammering the Liberals on trust and pocketbook issues. The focus was square on the Liberals – effectively, hoping to win the election by simply not being them. Perhaps continued commentary about both Patrick Brown and his policies being a mystery had an impact. It’s standard practice for parties to wait until (or very close to) the writ period to release their platform for fear of being picked apart piece by piece or worse, being adopted by opposing parties. Instead, Patrick Brown released his platform, known as the People’s Guarantee, in late November in a “coming out” party of sorts, planting his flag firmly in the center of the spectrum.

The People’s Guarantee provided little by way of fundamental policy change (dubbed “pragmatism on steroids” by the Globe), but provided a broad spectrum of individual groups (mostly middle class) with a sprinkling of goodies. The effect was to introduce Patrick Brown to Ontario as a reasonable, accessible and most importantly, not scary fellow.

The shuffle towards the middle was un-apologetic, even borrowing from Stephane Dion’s Green Shift plan of years past by offering an income tax cut primarily for the middle class and paid for through a carbon tax!  Many argued he ignored his social and fiscal conservative base, however in many ways, his platform was quite conservative in the traditional sense. Perhaps this feeling by his base of being ignored contributed to the platform launch not seeming to generate as much of a bump in the polls as might be expected. But it likely offers enough to keep his base happy and to convince centrist voters seeking a change that the PCs don’t have a hidden agenda. Either way, it’s changed the narrative – Ontarians may still not know Patrick Brown, but they know he’s changed his haircut.

The Liberals:
The Liberals face the daunting prospect of attempting a fifth consecutive election win.

Many suburban, rural and northern areas have been hard hit by the erosion in employment within the manufacturing sector, with much of the boom from sectors like technology and finance not extending growth to them. The Liberals are hoping left-of-centre policies like free drugs for children and youth and higher minimum wages will adequately prop up their support in these areas. The Premier has said repeatedly she sees her role to be to level the playing field. And she seems ready to fight the election on this basis (at least tapping into the populist forces driven by growing inequality), proudly wrapping herself in the fairness of the minimum wage hike and going so far as to take on certain business owners on the matter.

The Liberals hint more programs to level the playing field are in the pipeline, but they are still constrained by fiscal realities. Taking a page from Justin Trudeau and promising to run strategic deficits likely would not be a vote winner in today’s Ontario, so expect the Wynne government’s promise of balanced budgets to be kept and to somewhat limit what further programs they can offer. 

The NDP:
The NDP is in an interesting spot, but largely out of the spotlight. Unlike the Tories, they are less locked into their positions because they have not released their platform. Andrea Horwath regularly polls as the most trusted of the three party leaders and, by many accounts, the NDP have a solid following among younger voters who may not have lived through “Rae Days” in the 1990’s.. They also benefit from a less scary PC Leader which, in the past, has caused their traditional constituents to vote Liberal for fear of splitting the vote and causing the Tories to slip up the middle.

Rather than pledging even further left-of-centre policies than the Liberals, the NDP this session has mostly offered to follow the Government’s policy, but to go a step further – for example, providing more funding for health care, reversing the privatization of Hydro One and cutting hydro bills further than the Liberals. In year-end interviews, Andrea Horwath emphasized how much of the NDP platform the Liberals have adopted and positioned the NDP as the choice for those ‘tired’ of the Liberals and ‘disappointed’ in Premier Wynne.

Ultimately, the NDP will need to show voters they are ready to govern and manage the finances responsibly. (Think of Bob Rae’s new blue suits in 1990 and Patrick Brown’s candidate recruitments) If the NDP surpass the Liberals in the days leading to the election, they could see their vote dramatically rise in an accelerated fashion, as voters whom the Liberals had targeted jump ship. Ironically, this would be a reversal of the 2015 federal election – the moment the Liberals were viewed as the progressive choice, the vote for Mulcair’s NDP collapsed.

Predictions for 2018:
-Expect the Liberals to continue to try to paint Patrick Brown as the boogey man. This could shake Tory support and scare potential NDP voters into sticking with the Liberals.
-Expect some Liberal policies to take aim at promises in the PC People’s Guarantee. Having effectively stolen the NDP’s clothes, the Liberals have time to tack more centrist. It’s not coincidental the Government’s Fair Auto Insurance Plan came out days after the PC platform resurrected the issue.
-Expect the Tories to continue to increase the profile of their leader, humanize him and perhaps even announce an updated version of his Platform (especially if the Liberals adopt all his ideas). But don’t necessarily expect a big gaffe from the PCs.
-Expect a dogfight to the election (and potentially one earlier than June) and maybe not a clear result. We’ve raised the spectre of Bob Rae in the 1990s, the 2015 federal election and the 2016 US election, but maybe the 2016 BC election – where the long-governing Liberals won a minority, but the NDP is now governing – will be the most relevant.

Poll numbers have been erratic – some say the PCs are well ahead and the Liberals are in third place; others show the Liberals and PCs essentially tied, with the Liberals even slightly ahead. The lack of consensus in polling numbers gives each party reason to fight even harder to the finish line. It will be a wild ride!