In the shadow of two elections: Decoding the Liberal throne speech

By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 12, 2016
Ontario Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell reads the speech from the throne in the provincial legislature on Sept. 12 (lgontario.ca)

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In case anyone missed the connection, Queen’s Park only dealt with two matters Monday: the speech from the throne, and welcoming freshman Progressive Conservative Raymond Cho as the new MPP for Scarborough-Rouge River.

The Liberals announced billions of dollars in new spending with two major promises — to lower home electricity bills and create 100,000 new daycare spaces — prompted in part by their stinging byelection loss of a seat the party had held since its creation in 1985.

The government pledged Monday to give homeowners a rebate on their hydro bills equal to the provincial share of the HST, at a cost of $1 billion annually. The new daycare spaces, to be added between 2017 and 2022, will run at least $650 million in annual operating costs and as much as $3 billion in capital costs.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath declined to take a victory lap or indulge in an "I told you so" after the announcement of the HST rebate — something very close to what opposition parties have been demanding for years.

"It's not about me," Horwath told reporters. “The people of Ontario are going to have to decide whether this was about them or about Wynne trying to increase the fortunes of the Liberal party."

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Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown was less circumspect.

“We should be calling it the Raymond Cho Hydro Benefit,” Brown told reporters. “If it wasn’t for his victory in a Liberal stronghold less than two weeks ago this government would still be ignoring the crisis.”

Finance Minister Charles Sousa flatly denied the government was reacting to the Scarborough-Rouge River defeat.

“This is not something that just happened. Our caucus has been talking about this for months now. This has required months of preparation, so to suggest otherwise is just spin on the part of the opposition,” Sousa said of the electricity rebate — a policy the Liberals dismissed in both the 2011 and 2014 elections.

At the end of 2015, the Liberals ended the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit, a rebate program similar to the one announced today. The McGuinty government had originally brought in the OCEB in advance of an election, in November 2010. And just as the Clean Energy Benefit was eventually retired, Horwath hinted today she doesn’t expect the rebate announced today to last longer than it’s electorally useful.

“Who knows how long that rebate is going to last?” Horwath asked. The Hamilton Centre New Democrat says it would have been better for the province to permanently remove the HST from hydro bills. “I don’t think the HST should have been put on [hydro] bills in the first place, and it needs to come off.”

The government’s daycare announcement is likely to be welcomed at least as warmly by parents of young children, and is more in line with other Liberal spending decision.

Premier Kathleen Wynne had already hinted about a substantial expansion of social spending in remarks last week, saying that services like daycare make it easier for Ontarians to find and keep jobs. Her government also helped create 56,000 daycare spaces in the last three years, so this isn’t a change of course for the party. The federal Liberal government, which Wynne vocally supported in the last election, made a child care benefit to middle-income families the centrepiece of its last budget, and has promised $400 million for early education and child care in the next fiscal year.

Spending on child care clearly isn’t coming out of nowhere, but there’s some evidence that the Ontario government is rushing its announcement. For example, Associate Minister of Education Indira Naidoo-Harris could tell reporters only that the capital cost for the 100,000 new daycare spaces will be between $1 billion and $3 billion — not the usual kind of precision the public sees from policies that have been fully vetted by the public service.

Notably, the large majority of the 100,000 spaces will be created after the next election date, if the Liberals are re-elected. Again, Naidoo-Harris did not have a detailed schedule for when they  would become available.

Sousa, emphasizing that the government still expects to balance the province’s books in next year’s budget, hinted that voters will see more announcements like today’s, as the Liberals finally escape the shadow of their own deficits.

“This has been in our fiscal plan, and we’ve actually over-achieved because of the growth in our economy, as well as the measures we’ve taken to control our spending,” Sousa said. “The people of Ontario are looking for some relief, and some support, and we’re enabling that to happen.”

The Wynne government has already announced its intention to change Ontario’s fixed-election date law, creating some ambiguity around election predictions, but it’s expected Ontarians will next return to the ballot box in the spring of 2018.

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