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Queen’s Park Update: Liberals build team ahead of fall legislative sitting

Coming off its election victory in June, the focus of the Wynne government has been on passing the 2014 Ontario Budget, appointing ministerial chiefs of staff, implementing some change in the ranks of deputy ministers, and making a couple of key appointments in the Premier’s office. Download our quick reference guide of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Parliamentary Assistants, Chiefs of Staff and Opposition Critics for all of the details.

With this staffing work behind them, additional minister’s office staffing will follow over the next few weeks and into September. All of these changes have continued to leave many operational and key policy decisions outstanding and unlikely to be addressed until the fall. The House will resume sitting on October 20th.

Treasury Board

Within the new Government, the Treasury Board has taken on considerably more prominence, with Deputy Premier and Treasury Board President Deb Matthews not only serving as the Premier’s most trusted advisor in cabinet, but also leading a portfolio that is essential to realizing Kathleen Wynne’s election commitments.

John Zerucelli, a well-respected former staffer known for his organizational skills, has returned to Queen’s Park from practicing law on Bay Street to become Matthews’ chief of staff.

The Treasury Board’s Deputy Minister, Greg Orencsak, returns to a portfolio he knows well from his time as Associate Deputy Minister at Finance.

The government is placing high hopes on this Treasury Board group not only to focus spending on its priorities and reduce the budget deficit, but also to lead the transformational change that would be required to meet the government’s target date to balance the budget (2017-18).

New Deputy Ministers

In addition to Greg Orencsak, there are a number of other deputy ministers taking on new roles. Of particular note, Scott Thompson, who was the government’s senior staff member serving the Drummond Commission, now becomes Deputy Minister of Finance. Thompson has served as the Deputy Minister of Policy and Delivery in Cabinet Office, and enjoys the respect of senior civil servants and elected officials. Steven Davidson will replace Thompson in the Cabinet Office and become Associate Secretary to the Cabinet. Davidson is the former Deputy Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

Premier’s Office Appointments

Other important changes include two appointments in the Premier’s office. Pat Sorbara, who served as one of the architects of the recent election victory, will take on the role of deputy chief of staff for operations. Sorbara has the ear of Premier Wynne, and is known for her organizational skills and ability to drive an agenda. Rebecca McKenzie, who most recently served as the Liberals’ election campaign spokesperson and previously as chief of staff to then-Government House Leader John Milloy, has been appointed director of communications. We expect that these two women will be key players, along with other returning senior staff, in implementing Wynne’s priorities.

Liberal Agenda

Equipped with a majority government, we fully expect to see the Liberals focus on the agenda outlined in the 2014 Budget and during the election campaign. With the battle over legislative committee composition now over (each committee will have a majority of Liberal members), expect to see the role of committees diminish – so that they are more akin to the McGuinty-era calm than the roller-coaster rides they were over the past two years. The Liberals’ majority also means that the government does not have to be on a perpetual campaign footing, as the opposition parties and the news media will lose much of the influence they enjoyed during the minority sessions. Premier Wynne now has the chance to determine many of her own battles, and implement the change she wants to see.

Other Important Changes to Government Ministries

In addition to the deputy minister appointments released yesterday, the government also announced changes to the structure of certain ministries to support the new ministerial portfolios. These changes are expected to come into effect by September 2, 2014 and include:

• The new Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure will now be responsible for Infrastructure Ontario, Waterfront Toronto, and management of the government’s real estate holdings.

• The Assistant Deputy Minister of the Trade and Marketing Division will now report directly to the Deputy Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade, but the full function of this branch appears also to remain embedded in the repositioned Ministry of Economic Development.

• The Growth Secretariat has moved from the Ministry of Infrastructure to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. While the makeup and mandate of the secretariat does not appear to have changed at this point, this shift might result in a greater focus on planning policy.

Opposition Parties

The Progressive Conservatives have announced that their leadership convention will be held in April or May of 2015 (the party still needs to determine the exact date). Interim Leader Jim Wilson is serving a largely caretaker role, and we do not expect to see the PC Caucus stake out major policy positions this fall so as to permit maximum flexibility for the next party leader. It promises to be a long and fascinating leadership race, which we will be following closely.

Also of note is the leadership review that will take place at the NDP’s November 14-16 convention in Toronto. Although the New Democrats experienced a disappointing election result that left the party with the same number of seats but a reduced presence in Toronto – and without the levers of influence at Queens Park that they enjoyed in the minority parliament – Andrea Horwath has been working to shore up her political support, and at this point is not expected to face a serious challenge to her leadership.

What does this mean for you?

The Government continues to emphasize the following priorities: (1) jobs and the economy; (2) infrastructure and transportation; (3) the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan; and (4) balancing the budget. The structural changes and ministerial appointments to a significant extent reflect these priorities.

In order to meet the commitment to balance the budget by 2017-18, the Wynne government will need to make tough choices and implement major changes in how the province delivers services. One of these tough choices relates to government’s ability to improve efficiency and optimize value of certain assets. While the government has been focused on organization and personnel, the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets, chaired by outgoing TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, have been active in exploring options for these crown assets. The government will have to make important decisions about where it wants to go before the analysis of Clark’s panel gets too far ahead of where, when and how far the government is prepared to venture.

With a majority government, the Liberals also have a four-year mandate, and therefore the ability to implement major activity in the first three years. All of these combined factors mean that there will be opportunities to bring forward: (1) suggestions that create economic activity and help the government achieve their goals; (2) bold and transformative ideas that change how government does business; and (3) solutions, not just problems.

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