The great thing about being in government is that you get to set the agenda, at least as much as events allow anyone to. The bad thing about being in opposition is that even on good days, you have to react to the policies the government makes.
The Liberals really, really enjoy this state of affairs, and Thursday’s budget is no exception. The headline item is a pharmacare program guaranteeing publicly funded prescription drugs to people 24 years old and under. It follows the NDP pharmacare plan by less than a week: leader Andrea Horwath unveiled her party’s pledge to bring in a different system last Saturday.
The Liberals were happy to point out the ways in which their plan is superior to the NDP's: it will come into effect sooner (because, spoiler, the New Democrats can’t do anything until they win the next election) and will cover more drugs — the New Democrats are proposing to provide a much smaller number of the most common drugs to everyone, instead offering exponentially more medications to the youngest and healthiest Ontarians.
Whatever the details or relative merits of the Liberal and NDP plans, it’s obvious the Liberals either anticipated Horwath’s plans or were worried about them and wanted to protect Premier Kathleen Wynne’s political left flank.
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- How does the budget work, anyway?
At least as interesting is the detail — one that Liberals were sure to emphasize to reporters in budget briefings Thursday — that the Liberal pharmacare plan will fund contraception and the “abortion pill,” RU-486, which has been approved by the federal government.
Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown has already had to battle against social conservatism in his own caucus — and, the Liberals believe, in his own mind — over issues like the sex-ed curriculum the government brought forward in 2015. Social conservatives objected to changes that updated language about same-sex relationships, and taught children the proper anatomical words for their bodies.
Early in his political career Brown seemed to agree with the social conservatives in his caucus — until last fall when his pledge to “scrap” the updated curriculum blew up in his face. Since then, Brown has hewed as much as possible to the political centre. That included disavowing remarks from Tory MPP Rick Nicholls who was recorded telling social conservatives the party had to keep quiet on social issues until the next election, after which, “watch us go.”
The Liberals aren’t hoping to grab Tory voters who like the sound of free abortions for teenage girls; they’re carefully putting a rake on the ground and hoping Brown steps on it or is pushed onto it by someone in his party. It has worked before: in 2011 the Liberal election platform included a tax credit for companies that hired new Canadians. The Tories panned it as a subsidy to hire foreigners, and did so with language that came off as harsh and even nativist. (It was too early for anyone to say “Make Ontario Great Again.”) The Tories alienated some moderate voters in the process, and the Liberals just barely edged out a minority government, giving Dalton McGuinty his last election win.
That subsidy the Liberals promised? It never actually amounted to much, as far as anyone can tell. But as an election promise it served its purpose, which was to get the Tories to react against something in an inflammatory way.
So far, Brown isn’t taking the Liberal bait, telling reporters on Thursday he was happy to let scientists make decisions about medical safety and that he didn’t think there was any appetite in Ontario to revisit the issue of abortion. (The latter part was the line that worked relatively well for Brown’s old boss, Stephen Harper, for multiple election wins.)
Andrea Horwath said she wasn’t annoyed by the Liberals attempting to get an electoral advantage on her party, only “disappointed the people of Ontario didn’t get the plan they deserve.”
The Liberal pharmacare plan announced Thursday isn’t insincere and there’s no reason to think it’s going to end up a fiction: if nothing else, breaking a promise like this right before an election would be political suicide. But just as certainly, it’s not only about providing drug coverage to children and young adults. The Liberals know how much of a fight they’re in for next year, and they’re happy to use the power of government to carve up their enemies, or get their enemies to carve up each other.