The fall session at Queen’s Park came to an end last Thursday with MPPs heading home for the holidays until late February – and just 6 months before the 2022 provincial election. Of those 142 days, only 34 will see the legislature in session, before politicians hit the hustings and crisscross Ontario to shop for votes.
It is a scenario that Premier Doug Ford would likely have dreamed up differently. Ford certainly didn’t expect to be battling the COVID-19 pandemic for half of his mandate, let alone having to consider new restrictions and extending the vaccination passport timeframe beyond January. Ford and his cabinet are still focused on battling the pandemic, meeting regularly to discuss potential adaptations to existing restrictions. But unlike the past twenty months, they are also turning their attention to non-pandemic policies that they hope will earn them a second mandate.
This fall saw a shift in tone from Premier Ford and a return to the populism that elected him in 2018. After all, when was the last time that you saw a Conservative politician standing at a press conference with Unifor President Jerry Dias and CUPE leader Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas? But there they were with Ford and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announcing an increase to the minimum wage in early November. Ford has since appointed Dias to serve as the Chair of the Premier’s Council on U.S. Trade and Industry Competitiveness to lead Ontario’s own push against U.S. President Joe Biden’s electric vehicle subsidies. The Premier’s focus on workers and labour has made for some unlikely friends, but they are relationships which his campaign team hope will secure them another majority.
While the Premier will try to pitch the PCs as the party of “yes”, one of the biggest questions facing the Ontario government still hasn’t gotten an answer: childcare. Ontario is one of two provinces that have yet to sign off on a deal with the federal government that Ottawa claims will deliver $10 a day childcare in a few years time. With media reports suggesting that a deal with New Brunswick will be announced next week, Ontario will be the only provincial holdout – something that will likely embolden Ford’s opponents.
Strategically, it makes sense for Ford to hold off until the new year to get the most bang for the story, and keep pushing the message that he negotiated hard for parents. However, an announcement and the actual impact on parents’ pocketbooks are two completely different stories. Every day that this drags on is one fewer day to start selling the plan at the doorsteps.
On the opposition benches at Queen’s Park, Andrea Horwath has been making her pitch to be Premier. The fall session saw the NDP come out swinging at their political adversaries hoping that dissatisfaction with the most recent Tory and Liberal governments would sway voters in their favour. Horwath, running in her fifth campaign as party leader, has had to contend with Ford’s efforts to get cozy with her traditional labour base. Her team has particularly focused on the pocketbook issues including the rising cost of living, housing availability and affordability, and taking the Tories to task on childcare.
For Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed his ability to meet voters face-to-face but has given him an arsenal of issues to criticize the government on. Having served as a senior minister in previous Liberal governments, baggage still looms, and he has had to tread carefully on critiquing certain decisions. Instead, the pandemic has allowed him to hold the government to account on a slate of issues that would never have previously crossed his desk.
One outlier heading into June is the role that the True Blue Party and Randy Hillier’s offshoot Ontario PPC Party will have on the election. Much like the People’s Party of Canada at the federal level, the concern is not that these parties will siphon significant votes away from the Ontario PCs, but that they will serve as a distraction to Ford and kick up a fuss with voters over his handling of the pandemic.
For all parties, major logistical tasks lie ahead. Nominating candidates, finalizing platform commitments, and fundraising will all kick into high gear now. MPPs should enjoy some downtime while it lasts over the holidays. They’re unlikely to get much of a break between January and June.