Ontario Reboots Legislature with New Speech from the Throne

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government delivered a Speech from the Throne today in an attempt to position her party for success in the upcoming 2018 election and reverse sagging poll numbers. After proroguing the Legislature late last week – effectively killing all bills currently before the Legislature – today’s speech can be seen as a “reset” by the government, providing a glimpse into the Liberal government’s priorities between now and the 2018 election.

Entitled “A Balanced Plan to Build Ontario Up for Everyone,” the Speech primarily focused on pocketbook issues, especially efforts to provide financial relief to Ontario residents dealing with rising electricity costs. Perhaps sensing growing discontent among residents and businesses, the government committed to reducing hydro bills by 8% starting in January 2017.  To provide more relief to business, the government is expanding the Industrial Conservation Initiative to encourage industry to lower their energy consumption and electricity costs.

The government also made a commitment to create 100,000 new child care spaces over the next five years. The high cost of child care and the lack of affordable spaces (especially in the GTA) allows the government to frame this investment as another “pocketbook issue,” while taking action in an area that will appeal to traditional Liberal supporters.

The speech reiterated the government’s commitment to balancing the budget in 2017-18, but with significant new investments in child care and from the cost of reducing hydro bills, it remains to be seen how the government will meet this commitment. In addition, these actions could restrict the government’s ability to introduce new spending on initiatives in the next provincial budget.

The Throne Speech also restated the government’s commitment to reintroduce all government bills, which the government made shortly have the Legislature was prorogued. However, there is no guarantee that the bills will return to the Legislature in exactly the same form as they existed previously. Government may decide to make refinements or adjustments to previous legislation, before they are “re-introduced.”

What does this mean?

Today’s announcement was a defensive move to address the weak spot of high electricity prices that was driven home by the voters of Scarborough – Rouge River.  It also provides core Liberal voters with a significant move on child care in the absence of the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, no longer a key differentiator from the NDP due to the federal government’s move on CPP.

The combination of consistently low poll numbers across the province, and a recent by-election loss in the traditional Liberal stronghold of Scarborough – Rouge River, may have helped shape the government’s new priorities. By choosing to invest in hydro relief and child care spaces, while doubling down on issues like cap-and-trade, education and infrastructure investments, the speech can be seen as an effort to shore up the Liberal’s “left flank” and appeal to voters who tend to waver between supporting the them or the NDP. Siphoning off votes from the NDP played a large role in the Liberal’s 2014 election win and today’s Speech from the Throne may be the next step in an attempt to repeat that result in 2018.

The government clearly believes they need to help people in their “everyday lives,” while also helping reinforce their “left flank” before the next election. Today’s announcements, coupled with the balanced budget commitment and ambitious environmental, social and infrastructure agendas, raise the question of what other “left flank” and pocketbook issues the government can afford to address before the next election.  It could mean that any moves to go on offence may have to wait till the 2018 budget or the Liberal election platform.  The soon to be released Public Accounts, which will confirm the deficit for 2015-16 should help clarify just how much, or little, fiscal room the government will have.

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