It has been a rough year thus far for the Progressive Conservative government. Before it had even rolled out its first budget, it had already come under fire for changes to the Ontario Autism Program and for hastily arranging stopgap funding for schools to try to limit teacher layoffs. The budget, presented by then-finance minister Vic Fedeli, didn’t help matters, and, by June, Fedeli was the former finance minister. And all that was before the government’s patronage scandal exploded, taking down Premier Doug Ford’s chief of staff Dean French (he’s now a “former,” too).
But, as Matt Gurney wrote on Wednesday, there’s reason to think the worst may be behind the government for now. If he’s right — and I don’t disagree with his read of recent events — then the Tories will be able to enjoy their first period of respite in some time.
The hitch (you knew one was coming) is that it’s a federal election year, and, if the Ontario government has stopped being its own worst enemy, there are more than a few other powerful people who are happy to step up — people like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and those who work for him both in the federal government and in the Liberal Party of Canada.
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We saw an example of this on Wednesday, when federal health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor sent letters to her provincial counterparts, including Ontario’s health minister, Christine Elliott. The letter to Elliott warned the province that changes proposed in the 2019 budget to OHIP’s payments for out-of-country health care breach the principles of the Canada Health Act. The act is supposed to be the prime directive of Canadian health care, ensuring that federal dollars are used to keep provincial health programs universal, accessible, and portable. A warning that a province is in breach is a serious thing indeed.
If the details of OHIP’s payments for people who happen to travel outside the country don’t exactly set off alarm bells for the average voter, well, Petitpas Taylor wasn’t done. Responding to reports that Ontario abortion clinics have been charging fees outside of OHIP, the federal health minister asked the province to “ensure that Ontario residents do not face any financial barriers when accessing insured abortion services.”
These are both substantial policy issues, and the federal minister isn’t overstepping, exactly: so long as Ottawa sends the provinces billions of dollars annually in the form of Canada Health Transfer payments, it has an obvious interest in making sure the provinces adhere to the Canada Health Act.
It is, however, also true that the program the Tories inherited on out-of-country OHIP payments hadn’t been adjusted in decades — and that the reimbursements it offered were laughably paltry. The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn, no cheerleader for the Ford government, praised its changes last month and noted that Ontario was not doing much worse (or better) on this score than other provinces. Why Ottawa is ringing alarm bells about this change but expressing no concerns about the barely better status quo is a bit of a mystery.
On abortion, at least, the Liberals have been clear since Trudeau said, in 2014, that all new candidates would need to support a woman’s right to choose. And they’ve also been clear that they’d really like to talk about this issue in the election campaign (Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has indicated that he would very much prefer not to). Once again, there’s a serious policy dispute between governments here, and Ottawa is within its rights to write letters. But governments have lots of stuff they can talk about, so it makes sense to look closely at what they choose to make a priority. It’s certainly no accident that the Liberals have challenged the Tories in these cases — they’ve found an opportunity both to do their jobs and to fight to preserve them.
When MPPs decided to take a long summer break this year, the not-so-subtle explanation for the move was that Ford was trying to lie low and stay out of Scheer’s way. The presumed strategy: keep the premier out of the newspapers, let the new cabinet take the lead on some announcements, and wait until the dust settles after election day (October 21, maybe).
The problem with such a plan is always that, to borrow a phrase from military affairs, “the enemy gets a vote.” In this case, the federal Liberals have the ability to put the provincial government in the news whether Queen’s Park likes it or not — and they’ve got a very big megaphone to help them do it. If the Tories stay silent, the federal Liberals will have the floor; if they try to defend themselves, the Liberals will happily argue the point in question; and, if they try to kill the story by quickly changing policies, Ottawa will have won.
There will be 121 seats up for grabs in Ontario in the federal election — meaning we’ll likely be seeing more fights like this week’s in the months to come.