The federal election is here. What will it mean for Ontario?

ANALYSIS: The 2019 campaign has officially begun. Here are some questions Ontario voters should be asking 
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 11, 2019
Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford
Some observers believe that Premier Doug Ford is trying to lie low until after the election so that he can minimize any harm he may do to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s chances of winning. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

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This morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to the Governor General’s residence, at Rideau Hall, in Ottawa, and formally asked her to dissolve the 42nd Parliament of Canada. And so, the political parties vying to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons will now … well, they’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing for weeks: periodically proposing policies and attacking one other over gaffes.

At the starting line, the Liberals are reasonably well positioned, even if they probably wish they’d had a less difficult year. The SNC-Lavalin scandal dominated the headlines for most of the first half of 2019 and reappeared in August after the federal ethics commissioner found that the prime minister had broken the law in his handling of the issue. It could bubble up again, but, for now, opinion polls suggest that voters are more engaged with issues such as the environment and the economy.

Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives aren’t all that far behind the Liberals in most polls, but the nature of Conservative support means that they’ll likely end up with fewer seats even if they tie the Liberals or just barely edge them out (you can thank our first-past-the-post electoral system for that). The New Democrats under Jagmeet Singh are struggling to claim third place from the Greens in some surveys.

So that’s where things stand as the starting pistol fires. The election is going to answer the obvious questions — which party, if any, will have a majority of seats in the Commons for the next four years? — but there are more subtle ones that Ontario voters should keep in mind as they watch party leaders vie for their attention.

The carbon tax is probably the issue that the two parties currently leading in the polls are most strongly divided on: the Liberals under Trudeau have made it (or, rather, “making polluters pay”) central to their re-election bid in large part because Scheer has made repealing the carbon tax central to his.

If the Liberals prevail, the federal carbon tax will likely be a settled issue for most Canadians, even if some never accept it. The question then will be, what will Ontario do? Premier Doug Ford has said that the issue will be decided by voters, and some have read that to mean that the Progressive Conservative government at Queen’s Park may abandon its court challenge of the federal carbon tax if Trudeau wins. That wouldn’t necessarily stop the Supreme Court of Canada from hearing a challenge anyway — Saskatchewan’s wouldn’t be affected.

But if Ontario wanted to stop fighting the federal government over the carbon tax (and perhaps repeal its silly and unnecessary law compelling gas stations to put up those stickers), that would open up some possibilities. Most obviously, Ontario could ask the federal government for the billions of dollars in revenue that the carbon tax raises in this province. The Tories could reasonably say that, if people are going to pay one way or another, then the money may as well go to fighting Ontario’s deficit.

One hitch is that, in the absence of provincial assent, the feds have instead been sending Ontario taxpayers a carbon-tax rebate when they file their income taxes — and any agreement with Ottawa to take the carbon-tax revenues would mean no more rebates. Does the Ford government want to be the one to take those rebates away?

Another hitch is that the federal government could simply say no. The law compels them either to send the carbon-tax revenues to the provinces or to share them with taxpayers, but it doesn’t require them to say yes just because a province asks — and it’s not as if the current Ontario government has been working hard to make friends and influence people in Ottawa.

Which brings us to the final question this election will (eventually) answer: Will the PCs’ “season of 180s,” as we’ve called it, last beyond the election? One theory for why the Ford government is currently trying so hard to repair its standing in the polls relates to the federal contest: Ford is lying low until after the election so that he can minimize any harm he may do to Scheer’s chances of winning. If that’s the case, the government could embrace spending restraint with a bit more public gusto after October 21.

If the Tories don’t do that — if the more conciliatory spirit in the premier’s office remains after the ballots are counted this fall — well, maybe that’s because they’ve got their eyes on the next provincial election, in 2022.

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