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The ONW Salon: The Ontario Legislature Resumes

ONW Moderator Susanna Kelley:  Charges of ballot box stuffing at PC candidate meetings.  Former Liberal staffers on trial. And an NDP in danger of being crowded out on the left.  Welcome to the upcoming election year in Ontario.  What will be the issues each party will focus on, and why? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin look ahead.


John Capobianco:

The question posed by our illustrious moderator for today’s topic focuses around issues which will be front and centre in the upcoming election in June 2018. I will speak about that shortly, but I want to take a different angle on the question and talk about what I think the election theme will be about – and that is change.

The topics are and will be debated without a doubt, but the theme of change will be at the forefront as it was in the last successful federal Liberal campaign, where that party managed to out maneuver the NDP in convincing Canadians that they were the change agent.

The challenge for premier Wynne is that the Ontario Liberals have been in power for over 15 years and even though she herself has only been Premier for a third of that time, the Opposition will tie her to the long, tired Liberal government.

My friends on this panel know full well that the theme of change happens in almost every election - sometimes deserved, sometimes not.  But it is a great catch phrase, which is short, descriptive and can catch voters' imagination if the time is right. I believe the Conservatives think the time is so right for change.

As for topics, one only has to take a look at Monday's opening Legislative session - the key topics were hydro rates, hydro rates and the various trials that are happening with a number of former Liberal staffers facing trial for alleged wrong doing, in either the gas plant fiasco and the Sudbury by-election problems.


Tom Parkin:

Ontarians are very disappointed in Kathleen Wynne and most have lost faith in her.

Polling for the governing Liberals has been dismal and is getting worse despite numerous re-launch attempts. Since July 2016, the Liberals have lost 10 points. In the same period the NDP has gained 10 points and the PCs have dropped 2 points.

The last Forum Poll, done in late August, put the PCs at 40%, the NDP at 27% and the Liberals at 25%. And though the sample is small, that survey puts Andrea Howath’s NDP a single point above Patrick Brown’s PCs in Toronto while the Kathleen Wynne Liberals are running third. That vote composition would be devastating to the Liberal Party.

The worst news isn’t these party numbers or even that Kathleen Wynne has a net job approval score of -55. It’s that only 9% of Ontarians are undecided in their opinion of Kathleen Wynne. There’s no room for a turn-around.

The Liberals are done.

The question Ontarians will answer in the next election is: who represents the best hope for Ontario - PC leader Patrick Brown or NDP leader Andrea Horwath?

Patrick Brown is having a hard time keeping control over his own party. He won’t tell Ontarians what his plans are - but he’s always supported big cuts and privatization whenever the Conservatives made them before. Wynne is disappointing, but Brown would take Ontario down further.

I think Andrea Horwath comes into this well positioned. She’s always been upfront and I think people see her as a caring person. She’s real life and has energy. She believes we should expect more from government - not to cut and slash it. This is why she’s the most popular leader.

One of Andrea's most important tasks at this point it to assemble an impressive team of candidates ready to lead. And former Ontario News Watch panelist and current TDSB Trustee Marit Stiles will be running in Davenport and will be part of that offer! Good luck to her!


Richard Mahoney:

There is little doubt, confirmed by both Tom and John, that the opposition NDP and Conservatives will try very hard to make this into an election where the main is issue is change - a change in who runs the government of Ontario. That is what opposition parties do traditionally, and they can be expected to do so again. After all, what they care about is winning the election and replacing the current government with themselves.

Governments become unpopular over time - they make hard decisions, as Kathleen Wynne has done over the last four years. So if this election is about a straight popularity contest, between two relatively unknown opposition leaders and Premier Wynne, who will have been in office for five years by next June, the date of the next election, then it will be difficult slogging for the Premier.

But just because Tom and John and their parties want that to be the case does not make it so.

The issues that she will focus on are these: how do we build a prosperous society that makes life as fair as possible for its citizens? How can we help people cope with the costs of a global economy? Years ago, we could depend on a solid manufacturing base and a lot of secure employment for many of our people. Now, many of us work in the service industry, with little to no job security.

Hence the powerful moves to increase the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour. Hence the pilot projects towards a guaranteed basic income to make sure all of our citizens have access to the basics in life, recognizing that not everyone will have access to full-time, well paid work in the robot driven economy of the future.

How do we equip all of our people with opportunity in that economy? By doing what Kathleen Wynne has done - radically reforming how we fund post-secondary education so that families making less than $50,000 per year get free tuition, and those making a little more get more help. The results of that policy are in - and there are many more people from all walks of life applying for and attending post-secondary institutions. That is a huge win for them, and for all of us.

How do we help people afford medical care? By bringing in pharm care for everyone under 25. We already fund those over 65 for their medicines, so a huge part of our population is now under pharm care, with a focus on those who don't have access to the benefits of health insurance in the workplace.

So building a strong economy that helps everyone win, and is fair, is what Kathleen Wynne is about. And it is what she wants the next election to be about: not about who is popular, but rather about who has your interests at heart, and is doing something about it.  


John Capobianco:

Richard is right that all parties in opposition want to replace the current government in an election – they work hard trying to find the right message or theme between elections so that when the election gun goes off, they are ready to pounce. Richard agrees with me that most elections are about change, but as I said above, it is only effective when voters actually believe change is needed.

It happened in the last federal election when 10 years of Stephen Harper was enough for a majority of Canadians to make that change happen. Why? Because voters actually believed - although not to a significant majority level - that someone else needed to take over.

Tom correctly mentions the polls and how consistent they have been against the Premier, which has prompted her team to come up with the line about popularity vs. policy. Whenever a politician has to get in front of a camera and admit that they are not liked and it’s not about them or their popularity, you know it is over. Remember when Stephen Harper put out the similar message in ads near the end of the campaign?

Voters do believe in sound policy and want a government that will look after their pocketbook issues, but they also have a keen sense of smell. They know when something is well beyond the best before date. All the recent announcements and throwing money around are in some cases for good policy intentions, but the distractions and the whiff of desperation are palpable.

Voters will not be fooled and Patrick Brown will do an excellent job of bringing this to light with voters in the lead up to the election and in the election itself.

As for Andrea Horwath, not sure where she has been since the last election and I don’t think many Ontario voters do either.

All this to say - elections do matter and no one is ever to be underestimated, nor are polls leading up to elections to be considered rock solid - things can and do change on a dime and there are many variables that have yet to materialize between now and the election. But for Richard, Tom and I - this will be one election to watch for sure!


Tom Parkin:

It is a common for unpopular leaders to argue that it is because they've made hard choices. Sometimes it's even true.

But Ontarians have lost faith in Kathleen Wynne because of bad choices, not hard choices. Privatizing the electricity grid. Politicizing transit spending. And scandals like $100 million GO stations that encourage people to take the car.

Even when Wynne was stealing from the NDP policy book - like on tuition or pharm care - those were choices she made to benefit herself and her Liberals, not hard choices made to benefit Ontario.

And there are many doubts about Patrick Brown. Will he cut and slash and privatize? That’s what Conservatives usually do. We don't know; he won't say.

Again, this is why Andrea Horwath comes in so well placed. She’s already put out a plan to address electricity. She has been discussing transit with Toronto Mayor John Tory - I think that conversation needs to continue. And she needs to do something about the way Metrolinx works - a GTA of five million cannot have its regional transportation system run as a political prize.

I think Andrea will do well as doubts are raised about Brown and Ontarians carefully think through who can really provide the best hope for the future.


Richard Mahoney:

Good to know Andrea Horwath has been "discussing" public transit. That is what politicians like to do - "talk" and discuss. While she talks about these issues, the Premier has been presiding over the most massive expansion of public transit in our history. GO service expanding rapidly. Light rail going in Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo and a massive expansion of light rail across the GTA with the coming Regional Express Rail. So talk with John Tory about transit as much as you like, Ms. Horwath.

It is not enough for Tom and the NDP to simply pronounce that the Liberals are dead. They do not get to make that choice. The people of Ontario did. The NDP tried to do the same thing three years ago, killing an important new pension plan for the people of Ontario just so they could "kill" the Liberal government of the then new Premier - just because they thought it was to their electoral advantage.

Tom can claim that when the Premier acts on climate change, on education, on minimum wage, that she does so for political reasons. But if he thinks for a moment that the public won't be equally cynical about the motivations of Andrea Horwath, who has been running for Premier for a very long time, to little avail, then I think he is fooling himself.

The point is the NDP can be craven, too. They have opposed Liberal efforts to address climate change and alternative energy because of the increased cost - a massive reversal of what they say they have long campaigned for - in a cynical attempt to gain populist support. And Patrick Brown says what he thinks people want him to say, rather than what he will do.

Tom is right to suggest that we don't really know much about what the Conservatives will do if elected, just what they have done and how they have behaved in the past.

The Ontario election will be fought on issues that matter to people. There will be at least two, maybe three, clear visions in front of the people. If her opponents wish to dismiss the importance and support that Ontarians have for Kathleen Wynne's ideas, let them do so.

She doesn't need to be popular. She just needs to do the things that Ontario needs her to do: build a stronger, fairer economy; address the challenges of climate change; help people afford the care they need; and provide opportunity as best we can. Kathleen Wynne presides over what is probably the most progressive government on the continent in a time when we need that most. The people of Ontario will judge that accordingly next June.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 

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