Ontario Cabinet Overhaul: Positioning Liberals for Election 2018

Ontario’s new cabinet was sworn-in today (download our quick reference guide to Ontario’s new Cabinet here).  At 30 members, more than half of elected Liberals now sit in Cabinet.  While headlines continue to focus on the size of cabinet, and that women represent 40% of its members, there’s more at play here than echoing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and appointing Ministers respected for their communications skills.

Geography has as much to do with the composition of Cabinet announced today as gender.  The twist for Premier Kathleen Wynne is that her Cabinet must also take into account the redistribution of seats coming in the 2018 provincial election.

15 New Ridings in 2018 are Key Targets for Liberals

Six of the seven new Ministers represent areas, particularly the 905, where new seats will be created by redistribution for the next election. (Sudbury may not be seeing an extra seat, but Glenn Thibeault did recently wrestle this seat back from the NDP.)  In the last election, the Liberals made strong gains in Burlington, Halton, Cambridge and Newmarket.  Those new ‘beachheads’ have been strengthened today with an eye, not only to retain those seats, but to improve Liberal chances in many of the 15 new suburban seats that will be up for grabs next election.

Along with strategic geography and demographic signals, the changes to cabinet also reflect individuals’ communications strength. Two former broadcasters, an ex-federal parliamentarian, and a one-time PMO press secretary, are among the seven new Ministers — six of whom are rookie MPPs.

For Kathleen Wynne, re-election demands demonstrating success on priorities and showing the electorate that this government still has energy and new ideas.  Two of the government’s key priorities now have new people at the helm: Infrastructure and the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP).

Key Priority Areas Get New Leadership

Infrastructure once again has its own dedicated Minister as Bob Chiarelli returns to his former role.  Delivering on the government’s planned investments, while negotiating with Ottawa on Ontario’s portion of the federal Liberals’ substantial infrastructure budget, requires a solely focused and experienced hand.  With Mitzie Hunter’s promotion to Education, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan receives a new and equally effective voice in Indira Naidoo-Harris.  A third priority area sees Glen Murray remain in his post at the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to implement the government’s new challenging climate change plan. Expect to hear forceful sales pitches on these themes as the election draws nearer.

Premier’s Most Trusted Lieutenant to Tackle Post-Secondary Education and Skills

One policy area may have received a promotion as well.  One needs to look no further than the Premier’s most trusted lieutenant to see where the next top priority of the government may be: Post-Secondary Education (PSE).  Deb Matthews, now taking the helm of an expanded PSE and skills agenda, is arguably the most powerful minister ever in this field.

It is not clear yet what the government has in mind for this economically-critical, big-spending portfolio. But wherever Matthews is on the ice, the puck tends to be there. Significant change and perhaps pre-election promises may be in the offing here.

No Caution on “Bloat’ Risk

In taking an already-large cabinet up to near-record level, Wynne’s Liberals are exposing a flank to Patrick Brown’s strong-performing PCs.  Limited-government advocates will have few voices in this new cabinet, which represents Wynne’s final goodbye to the occasional nods to austerity that characterised Dalton McGuinty’s final term. Whether the continued remodelling of the Liberals as progressive activists works, or simply leaves the door open for Brown’s PCs or an NDP “real thing” argument, will have to await election day in two years’ time.