Yes, the big story of this week’s speech from the throne at Queen’s Park was the news that the Ontario Liberals plan to give people a break on their electricity bills.
Not to underplay the significance of that development, but something else captured my attention. It was just one line in the speech. But it represents the foundation of almost every big decision Kathleen Wynne’s government will make between now and the spring budget.
First, a look back.
It was a little over a year ago that Justin Trudeau, then the leader of the third-place party in the House of Commons, made a bold and some thought crazy campaign commitment.
With both of his opponents — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair — pledging to balance the budget as soon as possible, Trudeau went in the opposite direction. He announced that a Liberal government would actually run what he called “modest” deficits for the foreseeable future, in order to prime Canada’s economic pump even further.
The other parties pounced on what they were convinced was a fatal error by Trudeau. But the federal Liberals held firm, buoyed by research that showed the Canadian public was far more concerned about a sluggish economy and a failing middle class than it was over a balanced budget.
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Many observers have pointed to that break from the others as the moment Trudeau truly stood out from the pack. And, of course, we know his poll numbers went up shortly thereafter and victory was his on election day.
I’m told that several months ago, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne gathered her cabinet to consider the same question.
Trudeau’s victory made many Liberals wonder whether Wynne’s longstanding commitment to balance the budget by the spring of 2017 ought not to be as rock solid as the premier had previously portrayed it.
But after a spirited debate, the government decided to stick with its pledge. It did so knowing that would put significant added pressure on Finance Minister Charles Sousa, and probably knowing that increasing anger over electricity prices would force them to offer relief through subsidies, price cuts, or special programs.
Indeed, we found out in the throne speech that the Liberals intend to forego as much as $1 billion in revenues to bring electricity prices down and try to make that political headache go away. You can bet Sousa gulped hard when he heard that “ask” from the premier’s office. True, the economy is improving. Growth rates are modest, but among the highest in Canada. But asking a finance minister to give up a billion dollars as he tries to balance the books for the first time in a decade is a tall order. But Wynne ordered it anyway. And she doubled down on it with one line in the throne speech: “Our next provincial budget will be in balance.” No ambiguity or wiggle room there.
It’s now part of a broader drama that inexorably leads to election day in 2018. Premier Wynne evidently believes that notwithstanding Trudeau’s example, it would be highly ill-advised to repudiate her promise to eliminate the deficit next spring, since the Liberals are already seen by too many Ontarians as profligate spenders.
The premier also thinks the modest electricity price cuts will turn down the temperature on an issue that was threatening to become existential for her government. The dollars, at the end of the day, aren’t that significant. The government is essentially asking taxpayers to subsidize electricity ratepayers — almost like taking the money out of one pocket and putting it into the other.
But the story here isn’t the money. It’s the fact that the Liberals are now seen to be “listening.”
Whether you agree with her policies or not, it’s clear that Wynne has had an ambitious agenda. Some might say it’s been “in your face.” This week’s throne speech and its reiterated pledge to present a balanced budget next spring are very much about getting the Ontario Liberals out of your face, and back into your hearts.
We’ll know in less than two years whether it worked.