Return to Queen’s Park: What to watch for

The Ontario Legislature is back for what is sure to be an eventful session. With two by-elections on the horizon, a budget to come before the end of next month, and increasing attention on Liberal leader Bonnie Crombie, here’s what to watch for as MPPs return to Queen’s Park: 

By-election #5 and #6 

Voters in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex and Milton can both expect to head to the polls in the coming months to elect successors to Monte McNaughton and Parm Gill. While Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, a long-time PC stronghold, is expected to be a shoo-in for PC candidate Steve Pinsonneault, Milton will be a battleground between the PCs and the Liberals.  

Crombie is publicly mulling the opportunity to run herself – potentially giving her a seat in the Legislature – and Ford recently committed to funding the province’s share of two-way, all-day GO service to Milton – building on his party’s promise to continue investing in major infrastructure. 

If Crombie were to run, it would put to the test a central proposition of her leadership – that the former Mississauga Mayor will increase Liberal hopes in the 905.  

Ford, on the other hand, has lost four Cabinet ministers in the last six months. Whether Crombie runs or not, the PCs will be eager to hold this seat to demonstrate that Ford’s popularity remains intact – current polling suggests it is – and that there continues to be support for the government’s “Plan to Build Ontario.” 

Crombie Settles In 

Less than three months into her leadership of the Ontario Liberals, Crombie’s presence on the provincial stage has had an immediate impact on the Ford government’s policy-making and political strategy.  

The PCs wasted no time running a series of advertisements late last year in an attempt to define Crombie before she could do so herself. Crombie, on the other hand, began her leadership with a bold bet to raise $1 million in her first month on the job – a goal the Liberals say they surpassed, but the PCs dispute.  

Since then, Ford has announced two intended expansions to the future Hazel McCallion LRT in Peel region: the first, the previously cancelled downtown loop through Mississauga’s core; the second, a northern extension into downtown Brampton. In the lead up to the Legislature’s return, Ford also announced plans to introduce legislation – the Get It Done Act – that would require future governments to hold a referendum before introducing a provincial carbon tax; ban new tolls on provincial highways; and permanently freeze driver’s license renewal fees. 

These consumer-friendly policy decisions – combined with Ford’s steadfast promise to build Highway 413 – put Crombie in a difficult position on her home turf. While some criticize these moves as “political theatre,” the PCs are confident that building contrasts between themselves and Crombie’s Liberals on politically hot issues like the carbon tax is key to maintaining their support in the vote-rich 905. 

Crombie’s challenge now is to put forward a credible alternative to Ford’s government without being forced into policy positions that may define the Liberals early in her tenure. The Liberals’ path to “government in waiting” will be a challenging one.  

With only nine seats in the Legislature, a crucial Milton by-election on the horizon, and a party still rebuilding after two successive election losses, a lot is riding on Crombie’s personal brand and GTA-based popularity to redefine her party before Ford and the PCs can do so themselves. 

Budget Season 

Despite the political buzz surrounding Crombie’s leadership, Ontario is over two years away from the next election. That means Ford and the PCs still have three budgets to introduce before they ask voters for a third mandate. While the benefits of incumbency will allow Ford to continue shaping public discourse before 2026, he must still navigate the challenges of governing along the way. 

Cost-of-living, housing, and, increasingly, healthcare are all top of mind for people across the province. Although the PCs have reduced the gas tax, removed some road tolls, and eliminated licence plate sticker fees, affordability remains a challenge in every corner of the province.  

To address this challenge meaningfully, the government would have to accept the fiscal impact of introducing further affordability measures (consider that eliminating license plate sticker fees costs the provincial treasury $1.1 billion a year in forgone revenue) – making an already long path to balance more difficult.  

Add to this the mounting pressure from Ontario’s post-secondary sector for increased funding, the retroactive salary increases because of the Ontario Court of Appeal’s ruling on Bill 124, and an overall slowing economy (read: less tax revenue), and the Ford government is left with little fiscal flexibility.  

Expect the Ford government’s penchant for going “back to basics” to be more challenging as they enter their sixth year in government. Many of the challenges facing the Ontario government require investment and reforms – though on job creation, skills training, housing and infrastructure development, Ford currently has the time and political capital to deploy helpful initiatives. The PCs will also want to be seen as responsive to the challenges facing the healthcare sector, particularly through efforts to expand patient access to healthcare and to increase system capacity through the recruitment and training of more doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. We’ll get a sense of what the government has in store in these areas when it issues its new budget, expected by the end of March 2024. 

All this, plus a political opportunity for the Ontario Liberals not seen since Ford took office, has the potential for this legislative session to have a defining impact on Ford’s second mandate and on Crombie’s nascent leadership.  

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