It’s 2018, and that means the only thing you really need to know about Ontario politics this year is: voting day is June 7. The general election will be the lens through which everything at Queen’s Park is viewed, and it’s going to shape how MPPs and aspiring MPPs act between now and then.
But there’s still a lot of time until election day. The Liberals aren’t done governing just yet, and they’ve got some priorities they’ll want to see passed into law before their time is up. The House will return in February, the daily cycle of grilling the government at Question Period will get even more heated, and there will inevitably be surprises along the way.
All that said, here are some things to watch for this year.
The budget will be the platform, again
The single biggest day each spring is the release of the provincial budget, and in election years, the document has even greater significance. In 2014, the budget actually triggered an election: in the absence of NDP support, Kathleen Wynne asked the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature, and the Liberals kicked off their campaign saying simply, “The budget is our platform.” It worked well for them: they won a narrow majority at Queen’s Park and secured the right to govern for the next four years — something that didn’t seem like a sure thing when the campaign started.
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This year will proceed along similar lines: the budget will set the stage for a June election (in 2014, it was June 12). The document is also likely to feature major commitments: serious money for major rail upgrades to the GO system around the Greater Toronto Area, perhaps, or even a high-speed rail to Windsor. Given the moves the Liberals made in the last few budgets (OHIP+ in 2017, cheaper university and college tuition in 2016), it’s a safe bet they’ll offer a substantial expansion of the social safety net. There’s no shortage of possible ideas: a return to major provincial funding for affordable housing or the creation of a comprehensive child-care system could both be very popular.
But the Liberals won’t be able to deliver on the contents of the budget unless they win the election. And voters will be asked not just whether they approve of the government’s proposals, but whether they trust it to implement them. Given her personal unpopularity, that may be a bar Wynne can’t clear.
Liberal trials aren’t over yet (and the Tories may get theirs, too)
The Liberals got some good news in October when an Ontario judge acquitted two high-ranking party members of corruption charges, but at least two more court cases could still sour voters on the Liberal brand before election day. The case against two Liberal staffers in former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s office for tampering with computer hard drives has seen the charges against Laura Miller and David Livingston reduced in severity, but it lives on.
The Liberals are also facing a case related to their handling of the horse-racing industry. The government, with no notice, summarily ended a provincial revenue-sharing program with racetracks in February 2012, creating chaos in the industry. McGuinty and former Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will face questioning from lawyers in the New Year, though they’re unlikely to actually appear in a public court hearing. (Because it’s a small world after all, one prospective Tory has also been deposed in the case: Rod Phillips, the PC candidate in Ajax, was the CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation when the Liberals introduced these changes.)
And the Tories have legal headaches of their own: in December, the party was in a Toronto courtroom advocating that an appeals judge should uphold a prior decision to seal a recorded conversation (and its transcript) about the Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas riding nomination. That’s just one of many local nominations that have turned into a nightmare for Tories, with spurned candidates claiming that the party rigged races to exclude them. A decision about whether to unseal the recording of Patrick Brown’s campaign chair, Walied Soliman, is expected early in the New Year.
Will the NDP follow the Tories on the deficit?
In the Fall Economic Statement issued last November, the Liberals said that the next two fiscal years will see a balanced budget. The Tories say that if they win, they’ll run a modest deficit in year one of their mandate and then usher in growing surpluses. What would the NDP do?
The last election wasn’t particularly kind to the NDP (it gained zero seats on balance, and quickly lost the seat it had previously won in Sudbury), and in the 2015 federal election, after leader Thomas Mulclair promised fiscal balance, it lost badly to a Liberal party that promised to run substantial deficits.
So what lesson will the NDP take away from recent events? Will it continue to try to banish the memories of the deficit-spending Rae government of the 1990s, or will it take a chance on voters being less shy about deficits and make more expansive promises without worrying about paying the tab? It could be one of the key decisions of the coming months, both on its own merits and because an NDP that’s less concerned about deficits might be more willing to follow in the footsteps of other left-wing firebrands, like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, who’ve energized supporters and garnered attention (but not actual election victories) elsewhere.