Queen’s Park is back: Here are three things to watch for

OPINION: After four months off, it’s business as usual again at the legislature. What should you be keeping an eye on?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 28, 2019
Queen's Park
Queen’s Park went on break in June and resumes on October 28. (iStock.com/JHVEPhoto)

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Queen’s Park is back in session Monday morning, as MPPs who haven’t graced its halls since June return to legislative matters that normally would have begun in September. The first order of business — after the ceremonial entrance of the mace, the saying of the Lord’s Prayer, and a rousing chorus of “O, Canada” — will be the first question period in months. The New Democrats in the opposition benches will have plenty of material to grill Progressive Conservative ministers on, but the ongoing negotiations with teachers’ unions will undoubtedly be the biggest single topic.

And, then, after a break for lunch, MPPs will get back to the mundane tasks that fill most of the time at Queen’s Park: debating legislation, scrutinizing government in committees, and holding press conferences announcing various ideas. In short, your provincial representatives are back to work: here’s some of what we can expect to see happen between now and the winter break.

Tory backtracks

When the federal election started, I noted that one thing to watch for would be whether the government’s conciliatory-since-June mood would continue after the ballots were counted. It would have been one thing if the Tories had simply been trying to keep a low profile until Andrew Scheer’s fate was decided; if they kept backtracking on some of their more divisive proposals after the election was over, that would tell us something important about what the next two and a half years of provincial politics would look like.

Well, we have one early data point: on Friday, the government announced that it wouldn’t proceed with any major reorganization of regional municipal governments. The Tories had proposed a major overhaul of governance in the regional governments last year at the same time as it cancelled democratic elections for the regional chair positions in Niagara, Peel, and York — and cut Toronto city council in half.

The latest announced reversal means that the regional governments will be left alone. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark’s office told TVO.org that the government will not be reversing its decision to end direct elections of the regional chairs, so basically nothing has changed since the 2014 municipal elections. The 2015 Liberal decision to make the regional chairs directly elected (as they’ve been in Durham for some time) wasn’t universally popular, but the prospect of massive reorganization — forced amalgamations, for example, or letting Mississauga break away from Peel Region — would have been extremely disruptive and could potentially have threatened PC MPPs around the 905 region.

It’s just one data point, but not a trivial one. If the government continues trying to un-burn some bridges around the province over the next year, we can’t discount the possibility that the PCs’ poll numbers will recover.

What is the deficit, even?

Speaking of un-burning bridges, one reliable way of doing that would be to loosen the provincial purse strings and spend some money. That was something the government wasn’t willing to do in this year’s spring budget, which contained retroactive cuts that sparked outrage from municipalities and school boards.

We’ll get a sense on November 6 of how much the government is rethinking its austerity push — that’s when Finance Minister Rod Phillips is scheduled to deliver the fall economic statement. The traditional “mini-budget” will also give the public a clearer view of what the province’s actual deficit is. (There’s some confusion about that, as the release of the 2018-19 public accounts showed that the deficit for last year was only $7.4 billion, or half what the government last summer claimed it was.) Some of that is due to a number of changes in accounting methods, but the government also benefited from real changes in the province’s fiscal state — more revenues and lower expenses. But that was last year, and the finance ministry has been tight-lipped about what those changes could mean for the deficit going forward.

If the deficit is much lower than previously believed, the Tories could at least look forward to a less tumultuous future as they try to balance the budget.

There’s a leadership race on, if you hadn’t noticed

The Ontario Liberal Party is still looking for a new leader, and some important dates will be coming up later in the fall: the cutoff for new leadership candidates is November 25, and anyone looking to become a party member eligible to vote in the contest needs to sign up by December 2. The leadership candidates and their volunteers largely spent the fall working to get their federal cousins elected, but the race is heating back up again.

This week, Alvin Tedjo announced that, if he were to become leader, the party would commit to winding down the separate Catholic school system. Tedjo’s campaign, citing prior research, suggests that the move would save up to $1.6 billion annually (or 8 per cent of the nearly $30 billion spent by the education ministry for 2019-20). The Michael Coteau campaign is boasting of several high-profile endorsements, including former MP and deputy prime minister Sheila Copps and former provincial Liberal leader Bob Nixon. Meanwhile, former Beaches–East York MPP Arthur Potts, who lost his seat in the 2018 election, is expected to announce his own leadership bid next week. For now, Steven Del Duca is still widely believed to be the front-runner to succeed Kathleen Wynne.

Since the departure of two MPPs this summer — Nathalie Des Rosiers and Marie-France Lalonde both resigned their seats — the Liberals have had only a five-member caucus at Queen’s Park.

Liberal party members will vote for their delegates in early February 2020. The delegated leadership convention will be held in Mississauga from March 6 to 7.

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