If you thought the last few months of politics at Queen’s Park were a blur, you’re not alone. While the legislature normally breaks for the summer around this time, a revised schedule is now available online for the coming months. Due to time lost during the COVID 19 lockdown, a rotating number of legislators and staff will find themselves sitting for 3 weeks in July. Currently the plan is to be away for August and return to a normal schedule in September.
In the meantime, let’s consider a few government priorities.
To say COVID-19 has dominated everyone’s attention since March, remains an understatement. Speaking to numerous government staff over the last few weeks, everyone agrees that besides the massive and ongoing response to tackling the pandemic, little else is getting done. Most major announcements outside of the Ministry of Health all relate to COVID (i.e. Education on school programs, Agriculture on temporary foreign workers, etc.), while Finance and the Treasury Board do their best to get a handle on what the bottom line looks like.
With Toronto and Peel Region finally getting the green light to enter Phase 2 of re-opening, the government is cautiously hoping the infection numbers continue their downward trend. Evident by the massive beach party last weekend in Toronto, Ontarians are eager to get out and celebrate the arrival of summer after 3 months of social isolation.
Yet everyone should be concerned about the possibility of a spike in infections as people let their guard down, and what that might do to our already crippled economy. Suffice to say, there are lots of fingers and toes crossed in and around Queen’s Park these days.
Back on March 4th the provincial government announced their annual budget would be presented on March 25th. That date was scuttled when Premier Ford declared a provincial State of Emergency on March 17th. Since then, government expenditures, particularly for healthcare, have skyrocketed and tax revenues have plummeted due to the forced closure of so many businesses and industries. This perfect storm of economic turmoil is causing sizeable uncertainty, but Ontario is not alone and engages daily with their federal counterparts in Ottawa, as governments look to support Canadians during these difficult times.
As of last fall, the projected annual deficit for 2020/21 was estimated at between $6-9B. A report released in May by the Financial Accountability Office suggested Ontario’s annual deficit could balloon to over $40B as a result of the pandemic. This unforeseen economic catastrophe will completely derail the PC government’s plan to balance the provincial budget by 2023. Finance Minister Rod Phillips announced in March that a full budget would not be released until this fall.
Despite the reality of things changing on a daily basis, staff at Finance will be working overtime during the summer months to try and get a handle on things. The legislature is set to resume on September 14th, and we anticipate a budget date during the first full week of October.
It’s normal for majority governments to look at shuffling their cabinet around the mid-way point of their term, and in recent days the Premier has fielded questions from reporters on the topic. Expectedly, Ford did not tip his hat on any specific plans but noted he was blessed with a great team and that he had “20 caucus members who could jump into cabinet in a heartbeat and be just as good”. So, let’s speculate on what changes might occur if a shuffle does in fact happen.
First off, the Premier and his government have enjoyed increased public approval in their handling of the pandemic since March. With that in mind, don’t expect any of the prominent faces seen daily with the Premier during his COVID updates to be changing positions. Finance Minister Phillips, Health Minister Elliott, Education Minister Lecce and even Labour Minister McNaughton are all likely to remain in their current positions going forward. However, there may be promotions of some younger and more diverse faces from caucus to full ministerial roles, including:
Stan Cho (Willowdale)
Currently the PA for Finance, MPP Cho was previously PA to Treasury Board. Widely recognized as a rising star, he has the added benefit of representing an important Toronto riding, and is the most likely new face to enter cabinet.
Michael Parsa (Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill)
MPP Parsa is currently the PA to Treasury Board and was previously the PA for Small Business. A tireless worker, he has an excellent track record of listening to people’s concerns, and his own experience as a successful small business owner puts him in a favourable position with Premier Ford.
Christine Hogarth (Etobicoke–Lakeshore)
Involved in provincial politics for many years, MPP Hogarth was a staffer during the Mike Harris years. She understands politics at the grassroots level and has done well in her role of PA to the Solicitor General for Community Safety. Also representing an important riding in Etobicoke, her chances of being promoted to cabinet are good.
Nina Tangri (Mississauga–Streetsville)
Prior to politics, MPP Tangri enjoyed a successful career in the private sector boasting over 30 years’ experience in financial management. Last year she was promoted to PA under the Minister of Economic Development. Given the importance of holding on to GTA area ridings, promoting a capable MPP like Tangri can only help the government with its re-election bid.
Lindsey Park (Durham)
While still relatively unknown, MPP Park is a very capable and competent politician ready to serve in cabinet if asked. A lawyer by trade, she has stayed in the role of PA for the Attorney General under both Ministers Mulroney and now Downey. Ms. Park’s riding has a good mix of rural and urban areas so she could easily step into a variety of roles, especially if the Premier is interested in giving his cabinet a more youthful element.
While MPPs will continue to sit for July, things are far from normal at Queen’s Park. All of us are optimistically looking towards the fall in the hopes that regular face-to-face visits will resume come September. Despite the singular focus on COVID, the government is likely eager to move forward with other priorities, yet no one knows exactly when they will be safe to do that. Post-COVID, government focus will be restarting the economy and priority will be given to any and all advocacy initiatives based around economic growth and job creation.
Many industry groups have been pleading with government for emergency funding, but resources are limited. Therefore, as you look ahead to restarting your advocacy plans this fall, be mindful to highlight what’s in it for the government so they take notice and provide support.
Grassroots will be monitoring government activities throughout the summer months, and is your eyes and ears at Queen’s Park as you need it.
Stay healthy and enjoy the summer!