ontario news watch

“What fresh hell,” the PM said, channeling us all as we stare down the threat of this omicron variant interrupting another holiday season.

“What fresh hell,” say I, as I prepare to write my annual year-end “hot or not” and prediction columns.

Here’s the first: my little annual tradition (defined, from my collegiate days, as “anything two men of college recall happening more than twice”) of who’s up, who’s down, and who really bothered me this year.

Justin Trudeau: Hot

The PM’s act might be wearing thin on a significant segment of the population, but his gamble to call an unnecessary election paid off, giving him his third straight win, and second straight almost-a-majority-but-not-quite mandate. He seems a bit disengaged, but his handling of COVID-19 has been a solid “good enough”, and whether he tries to keep governing for the long term or is into legacy mode, no one can deny he might be a bit greyer, but it’s still working for him.

Erin O’Toole: Not

He lost, when his job was to win. He also seems blithely unaware that he lost. I heard him speak, introducing former PM Brian Mulroney at the Churchill Society. It was unfair — the Tory grandee outclassed him in a way that was almost, inadvertently, mean.

Chrystia Freeland: Not

Count me as one Liberal not sold on her as heir apparent. She is losing the opening round of her tussle with Conservative rabble rouser Pierre Polievre. He might be over the top, and generally wrong on the economics, but he has a message about the cost of living most normal people can relate to, and even cheer on. Freeland, meanwhile, seems kind of annoyed that she has to explain why she is right, and others are wrong. Lecturing isn’t leading.

Pierre Polievre: Hot

See above.

Doug Ford: Hot

Love him or hate him or really hate him, the vast majority of Ontarians think he’s done OK this past year. It’s been far from perfect, but his heart is seemingly in the right place, and he gets things right, even if it’s on the third try. He also has a real message about housing affordability and traffic congestion. If he could fix his government’s seeming disdain for kids’ education and future, he’d be cruising to reelection. As it stands, he likely will win reelection next June, thanks in no small part to the utter lack of any spark in his two main opposition parties (see below).

Andrea Horwath & Steven Del Duca: Not

The two opposition leaders in Ontario are either invisible and being outflanked by the Tories on labour rights and housing affordability, or unexciting and without a seat. Rather than taking the fight to the Tories, the NDP and Liberal leaders seem to be shadow boxing each other for who comes in second, fighting over a downtown progressive vote at the expense of the suburbs, and trailing a Premier they despise in all key leadership metrics, from caring to competence. It’s not good. Neither oppo leader seems to have a message other than reacting to what Ford does. If they split the vote, as seems likely today, Ford will run up the middle. His opponents may be the best assets he has.

Rachel Notley: Hot

Meanwhile, in Alberta, the former Premier shows all opposition leaders how it’s done. She’s kicking Jason Kenney’s butt, and has a clear contrast message, clear leadership qualities and seems ready to govern if given the chance. Her only problem? The election isn’t tomorrow.

The Curse of Politics: Hot

The best political podcast in Canada — David Herle, Jenni Byrne, Scott Reid and a lot of swearing, Marvel comics references and old war stories — continues to delight, inform and make jogging or car drives more enjoyable. If you’re not listening, you should be.

John Tory: Hot

Calm, competent, kind, shows up to everything, cheerleads the city — the guy has grown on me, and the majority of his voters. If he runs for a third term, he’d win, and cement a legacy as Toronto’s longest-serving mayor. If he doesn’t, there’s no real heir apparent to step into the big shoes he’d leave. I hope he runs again.

Anita Anand: Hot

She’s the cabinet MVP, and the woman who got us all vaxxed, and she’s already righting the ship at DND.

Agree, disagree? Let me know…after the holidays.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The ‘phoney’ election campaign starts in Ontario

Ontario’s main parties have launched their first advertising wave in the run up to the 2022 provincial election.

Lots of sound and fury on radio, tv and digital media platforms… but signifying exactly what?

Conventional political wisdom suggests that, apart from partisans,  most Ontarians [ more than 60%] are unlikely to be paying any attention at all to these messages. This is particularly relevant when citizens are still recovering from the message carpet bombing of the federal campaign.

So what justifies two parties flush with fundraising dollars and facing imminent legislative constraints limiting what can be spent in the lead up to the election call to launch such a flurry of activity.

There are legitimate rationale for seeking to frame the provincial race this far in advance of the fixed election date but they rest in seeking to address different political challenges.

Like its federal counterpart, the key to the Ontario election will be all about voter splits.

Government and NDP are seeking to define Liberal leader Steven Del Duca in the public mind as Wynne’s ‘right hand man’  before he can successfully establish his own desired mark. A proven strategy. Federal Conservatives tried to label Justin Trudeau as not ready for prime time; his predecessor Michael Ignatieff was effectively attacked ‘as not coming back for you’.

Del Duca, who candidly admits to a charisma deficit, had been preoccupied with internal Liberal rebuilding:  successfully paying off the massive provincial party debt from the last election, revitalizing the party organization and recruiting a solid candidate base with 50% women and 30 candidates under 30 years of age. As critical as these tasks are in the run up to the election, they had done little to define his ‘invisible’ public persona which also suffered from not being an elected member in the Legislature.

This past weekend’s Annual General Meeting allowed Del Duca an opportunity to use a policy focus to begin this next phase, given that virtual meetings severely constrain the volunteer excitement generated by in person gatherings.

His efforts to frame himself as a ‘positive’ leader willing to acknowledge policies from other parties puts him in stark contradistinction to the early approach taken by the other leaders. Combined with his focus on reestablishing the voters’ trust, the strategy serves as a step to inoculate himself from likely attacks about his reputation for hard nosed politics.

Both approaches also appear likely to appeal in any future minority government scenario.

Andrea Horwath’s attacks against Del Duca reflect the NDP’s ongoing political preoccupations. Entering her fourth election as leader, her critics repeat the view that she has not been able to convert personal popularity into electoral success; most recently, in 2018, she failed to overtake the Conservatives when the Liberal support had collapsed and the Conservatives were led by an unpopular leader.

In short, the NDP attacks show they are worrying about securing their Opposition flanks against a Liberal revival as much as securing a victory against the Ford government.

In the context of Ontario’s federal vote, both the provincial Conservatives and the NDP’s preoccupations with a Liberal rejuvenation have some merit. The Liberal base in Ontario’s biggest urban areas held fast, with vote splits defeating determined efforts by both federal parties in an otherwise favourable election cycle for them.

The latest Leger Post Media provincial poll taken October 8 to 10 reconfirm a similar reality. While the PC’s lead with 35% , the Liberals have overtaken the NDP for second, recovering to early May levels. The NDP sit some 10% behind the first place Ford Government.

Some strategists are content to argue that the flurry of advertising is an investment in buoying the spirits of the PC and NDP partisan base licking their wounds after the federal defeat.

The PCs have likely banked their biggest campaign promise, a tax cut, for release closer to the election. In an early summer 2021 study, the FAO flagged that future Ontario revenue forecast in the budget is lower than the government’s economic outlook, suggesting possible unannounced tax cuts in the future.

The Ford government has also laid the ground work for not balancing the budget any time soon, thereby alleviating the need to explain where proposed spending cuts would be made.

Another explanation for the flurry of activity is that the parties are test driving their election messaging, trying to determine what will stick. Both Premier Ford and Opposition Leader Horwath have laid out a number of policy areas, from Highway 413 to long term care, with which they wish to be identified.

The PCs effort to position Mr. Ford’s government as willing to respond positively- the ‘yes’ party- leaves them open to two lines of attack.

The first criticism is that Mr Ford’s government is willing to satisfy large interest groups at others’ expense. Following revelations MLSE helped the government get its Covid QR  app working [a worthy initiative in its own right], there have been unproven allegation that a quid pro quo was offered to benefit large sporting venues at the expense of smaller businesses.

A second challenge to the PC ‘yes man’ strategy is that it may remind voters of unprincipled people who will agree to virtually anything to curry favour. This type of criticism has been hurled before at Premier Ford during his management of the COVID crisis and carries worrisome political baggage.

With more than 8 months to go, this phoney war will soon pass.

From my perspective, the first campaign investments should be in the constituency ground game- identifying voters, recruiting local volunteer base, and building electoral infrastructure in winnable ridings. The recent federal campaign showed the value of such a ‘vote efficiency’ focus in the latest Liberal victory.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The unusually short October 4 Ontario throne speech didn’t say much. For Green Party leader Mike Schreiner it “had to be one of the most uninspiring throne speeches I’ve ever heard.”

The slender document made more sense, however, as the opening salvo in an as yet informal Ontario election campaign, culminating eight months from now on June 2, 2022.

By October 8 the launch of TV ads by both the Ford PCs and Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats had stiffened this reading of the October 4 speech.

It also suggested that the 2022 Ontario election will have an effectively American-style long campaign, starting early in the fourth quarter of 2021.

There were signs that the Ford government’s address on its near-future plans had been put together hastily as well.

The remarks read to the Legislative Assembly by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, for example, highlighted the government’s response to the pandemic over the past 18 months. And they praised the parallel role of  a broader “Ontario spirit” — defined by “Strength. Determination. Compassion. Generosity. Grit.”

But are the Tory speech-writers aware that one key meaning of “Grit” in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is : “In Canadian politics a Radical or Liberal”? Is this why Steven Del Duca’s spirited Ontario Liberals are now calling themselves “True Grit”?

The Lieutenant Governor’s talk did put forward at least one new thing.

Unlike the Ford government’s first throne speech of July 12, 2018, the 2021 edition begins by “acknowledging that we are all on lands traditionally occupied by Indigenous Peoples.”

At the same time, the Doug Ford Conservative version of this kind of acknowledgement has evolved from the simpler practice begun by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. It is somewhat more complex and historically accurate. The capital city region’s deep past has involved “many Indigenous nations.”

On October 4, 2021 the Lieutenant Governor also acknowledged that “we are meeting in the area covered by Treaty 13, also known as the Toronto Purchase.” And the reminder that (in Ontario at any rate) the lands “traditionally occupied by Indigenous Peoples” were ultimately “purchased” arguably delivers a particular conservative message about Indigenous rights.

Yet again the 2021 throne speech is just a hasty beginning for the long 2022 election campaign. It was quite unusually given at 9 AM in the morning — so Premier Ford and four cabinet ministers could fly to Timmins in the northeastern Ontario mining country in the afternoon.

The trip was meant to spark the local Ontario election campaign of the current Mayor of Timmins (a retired mining executive). He is hoping to take a longstanding safe NDP seat in the great north for the PCs, on June 2, 2022.

The day after the throne speech the Ontario PCs launched a “pre-election advertising blitz,” promoting Premier Doug Ford as another big spender in the midst of the pandemic, not unlike PM Justin Trudeau.

The almost two-thirds of all Ontario seats the Trudeau Liberals won in the recent federal election do seem to be weighing on the PC mind. Premier Ford wants some people of Ontario who voted Liberal federally in 2021 to vote for him provincially in 2022.

Meanwhile, the provincial Financial Accountability Office has published data which illustrate further strands in the premier’s latest intermittent jabs at just getting along with the re-elected Liberal minority government in Ottawa.

The FAO reports that $170.3 billion has so far been spent on COVID support in Ontario. As much as 85% of this sum came from the federal government. Only 15% came from the province.

In the end marketing Doug Ford as more of an old-school progressive conservative than he really is has been an intermittent feature of Ontario PC thought, since the premier abandoned his hard-right populist incarnation from the 2018 throne speech in the summer of 2019.

The fixed-date election day on June 2, 2022 is still eight long months away.

Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats are apparently strong financially. They say they will match PC TV advertising, dollar for dollar.

Steven Del Duca’s Liberals have had some recent success getting media attention.

Yet the struggle between New Democrats and Liberals to define a winning progressive alternative could still prove a great gift to Conservatives this coming June 2.

It is of course far too early to tell. But as the Ontario political universe looks right now, Premier Ford could stand a better chance of winning the next election than he may actually deserve.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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Ontario’s political parties have a bad spending habit, but they don’t have to pay for it because taxpayers get stuck with their political welfare scheme.

In Ontario, political parties are given millions from the pockets of hardworking taxpayers through a system referred to as the per-vote subsidy.

This money does not go toward funding their official government office expenses at the provincial legislature. Taxpayers are already on the hook for those expenses.

The political welfare money goes to partisan political parties so they can spend it on anything they want. This includes attack ads, lawn signs, and partisan offices for party bigwigs.

When he was running for office in 2018, Premier Doug Ford promised to scrap Ontario’s political welfare system. Instead, he’s only made it stronger. Ford has also teamed up with other party leaders to have taxpayers give politicians a $10 million payday loan by taking future subsidies before the next election.

Disclosures from 2020 reveal that Ontario’s four major political parties spent a combined $15 million on partisan expenses to help run their political arms.

While Ontario’s political parties might try to claim that they’re the ones footing the bill, the truth is that political welfare payments means that these expenses are being paid in large part by taxpayers.

That’s because the province funnels over $12 million of our hard-earned money to Ontario’s political parties every year. And it’s not as though political operatives are toiling in austere sweatshops. Even a quick glance at their spending shows they don’t need taxpayer charity.

Last year, Ontario’s governing Progressive Conservative Party spent $191,145 on “meetings hosted.” Perhaps the PCs could find a way to spend less than $500 per day hosting meetings.

Ontario’s NDP managed to spend $84,175 on postage in 2020. That’s more than three times as much as the PCs and Liberals spent on stamps combined. Hasn’t the NDP heard of email?

As for the Ontario Liberals, the party with eight MPPs somehow managed to spend $134,790 on office furniture and equipment expenses. Just how many people does a party that no longer has official party status need working at party headquarters?

While some may argue that Ontario’s politicians need to have some of their office expenses covered, taxpayers already spend millions covering the cost of official government offices. Every MPP at Queen’s Park already gets $299,000 to pay for their official offices each year, courtesy of Ontario taxpayers.

With all this wasteful spending, political parties, not Ontario taxpayers, should pick up the tab in funding any non-official expenses. That means ending political welfare.

All four of Ontario’s major political parties have come out in support of party subsidies. They rely on taxpayer dollars to pay their bills. Taxpayer subsidies account for more than half of total income for the PCs, NDP, Liberals, and Greens.

But whenever one calls into question the political welfare system in Ontario, the parties get apoplectic.

“There has to be a way of funding democracy,” said NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

Horwath and other party leaders continuously claim that their parties would be unable to survive and operate at full capacity if the province’s political welfare regime would go the way of the dodo bird.

Nonetheless, these reckless expenses indicate that all four parties have plenty of room for savings. And, 10 years after the federal government repealed political welfare at the federal level, national political fundraising continues to hit new records.

Parties can survive and thrive without handouts.

It’s time to take the cake away from Ontario’s politicians. It’s time to end political welfare.

Jay Goldberg is the Interim Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.