For a campaign-style launch the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party actually didn’t want to undertake for several more months, last weekend’s surprise unveiling of the party’s election platform went remarkably well.
I’ve been told by normally reliable sources that the PCs had hoped to hold off introducing their platform until much later. But their polling indicated that the Liberals’ “man without a plan” attack was working with the electorate – thus, the decision to bring forward the drop date.
That’s always a risky move. The party infrastructure might not be as prepared as it needs to be with policy formulation. The leader might not know his brief well enough. He also might make mistakes as he tries to sell it.
But Patrick Brown experienced none of that and instead received considerable plaudits from across the political spectrum for the confident way he rolled out the so-called People’s Guarantee – the five-point platform pledging to cut taxes, lower electricity prices, and more.
The flip side of that is that the early release date certainly now gives critics more opportunity to pick over the plan, and that has already begun. Interestingly, the Liberals really can’t find too much fault with some of Brown’s higher-profile commitments. For example, a historic increase in spending for mental-health services, the further subsidizing of the cost of child care, or the bringing in of new accountability measures haven’t received any pushback at all. And everyone has acknowledged that getting the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page (now at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy) to sign off on the financial assumptions underpinning the plan was a master stroke.
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But on the other commitments, the critics are pushing back hard. Already people are saying that Brown’s promised provincial income tax cuts will never actually materialize, because the new carbon tax he intends to bring in will surely eat that all up. (Former federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion must be scratching his head; he was pilloried in the 2008 federal election for introducing a “green shift” very similar to the plan for which Brown is now receiving kudos). The Liberals are also calling the PCs’ claim that they will cut income taxes by 22.5 per cent deeply misleading: the People’s Guarantee promises a 22.5 per cent cut in one income bracket, not a cut that size across the board. (It should be noted the Liberals used similar math a few weeks ago when they billed a reduction in the small business corporate tax rate to 3.5 per cent from 4.5 per cent as a “22 per cent cut.”)
Furthermore, the Liberals are claiming victory because of some of the assumptions upon which the People’s Guarantee is based. For example, for nearly a year, the Tories have been siding with the auditor general, and against the provincial government, on the Liberals’ determination to bank $10.7 billion of pension surpluses as an asset on the province’s books. The Liberals – backed by some industry experts – need that surplus on their books because it could represent the difference between a budget that’s balanced and one that’s not. And the government has staked a lot of political capital on its promise to balance the books.
The Tories (and the auditor general) have disagreed, but in their own People’s Guarantee, the PCs calculations are based on the Liberals’ interpretation of the pension surplus issue. A highly placed Liberal source calls that “a massive about-face for them.”
Additionally, the “reasonableness” of Kevin Page’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval also depends on billions in cuts to the current government’s spending plans. And here, the two main parties diverge significantly on what that entails. The Liberals are predictably insisting that implementation of the Tory platform will result in massive service cuts across the province, such as the closure of schools and hospitals.
The PCs insist that with the way the Liberals have, in their view, been overspending like drunken sailors, they shouldn’t have any trouble at all identifying a mere 2 per cent in spending cuts on a roughly $140 billion budget. Plus, the party is taking a chapter from the federal Liberals’ successful 2015 election campaign by pledging to go back into deficit for the first year, while balancing the books thereafter. So harsh spending cuts of the kind former PC leader Tim Hudak advanced in the last election campaign won’t be necessary, Brown insists.
(Incidentally, we’ve seen how hard getting the books back into balance has proved to be for the federal government. It pledged to run a “modest” $10 billion deficit in its first year, only to come in with something about three times as big. And now there appear to be no imminent plans to get back into the black).
Brown has already hit the hustings every day since his platform dropped last Saturday. He’s the major party leader with the least electoral experience, having never led his troops through a province-wide campaign before. Premier Kathleen Wynne has led her party into one previous campaign, and she won a majority government. Andrea Horwath of the NDP has already helmed her party in election campaigns in 2011 and 2014. So Brown needs the most practice of the three, and he’s getting it now.
One also wonders, now that the Tories have brought out their election manifesto, whether that’ll pressure the other two main parties to pony up something sooner than they’d intended.
Full disclosure: my wife is a volunteer for the Ontario PC Party. She co-chaired the health care policy development process, some of whose planks are in the PC platform.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post stated the small business tax will be reduced to 2.5 per cent from 3.5 per cent. It will actually be reduced to 3.5 per cent from 4.5 per cent.