Peter is the Principal & Senior Consultant at Grassroots Public Affairs and is based in Toronto. Peter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh, what Premier Ford and his cabinet would do to go back a year in time…
Twelve months ago, the Ford government was focused on contract negotiations with Ontario’s teacher unions. Last year’s fall economic statement indicated the government would fall short of its previous deficit targets, and the provincial deficit would take an extra year to eliminate. Compared to how this year has unfolded, 2019 was a cakewalk.
2020: A Challenging Year
2020 continues to be challenging for everyone, governments included. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Ford government to chuck the playbook from 2019 and essentially start from scratch. Governments have never been very good at planning long-term but nowadays, with the pandemic and changing priorities on a weekly basis, every government’s priority is focused on protecting the health and well-being of its citizens; while simultaneously doing whatever possible to help an economy that has been devastated since the lockdown.
Between the end of March and the legislature’s return to a regular schedule on September 14th, parliamentarians in Ontario had only 21 sitting days to deal with the business of running the province. During the spring lockdown only a skeleton number of MPPs, on all party sides, were scheduled to sit and debate legislature. Despite some MPPs sitting on shortened weeks in July, Queen’s Park was basically deserted, and all staff have been working virtually more often than not.
From our perspective there are a few obvious priorities for the government for the duration of the scheduled fall session; the first being, not surprisingly, healthcare.
No ministers have accompanied the Premier at his 1pm daily briefing as often as Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott. While Ontario leads the country in COVID testing, there is an increasing backlog of tests to be processed. Premier Ford has always been recognized as a businessman first, so his rise in approval numbers during the pandemic and his focus on the well-being of Ontarians, has been an unanticipated bonus for him. Suffice to say, Premier Ford has impressed many with his leadership during these challenging times.
After a long and trying closure of schools following March break, parents and students alike were eager for schools to reopen this September. Unfortunately, a full return was not possible and depending on where you call home, a significant number of children are not yet in the classroom on a daily basis. While schools and the education system seem somewhat better prepared to handle the health crisis compared to the spring, there is a growing teacher shortage and overall anxiety levels amongst educators and parents are increasing as the pandemic shows no signs of subsiding. The Ford government’s and in particular Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s worst nightmare is an outbreak amongst school children, sending kids back home and parents back to primary educators. Rumour has it Minister Lecce would welcome a change in role, but he’s done an admirable job in the position, so don’t expect him to be going anywhere soon.
The last and equally significant priority Premier Ford and his government face this fall is economic recovery. While the safety and protection of all Ontarians from COVID remains top of mind, the last thing Ford wants to do is declare another lockdown with virtually every business closed. Economists already predict sectors of the economy including hospitality, tourism and dining will take years to recover. Restaurants that haven’t closed their doors permanently yet are barely hanging on, and the colder weather won’t help.
The spring lockdown delayed the spring budget, but Finance Minister Rod Phillips has committed to delivering a budget on or before November 15th. Long-gone are the deficit forecasts under $10B with estimates as recent as a month ago suggesting a record-setting $38B deficit as very probable for 2020. Like their federal counterparts, the PC government is focused on current pandemic challenges over potential long-term financial risks.
Practically speaking, things are far from normal at Queen’s Park. Lobby days and evening receptions remain suspended indefinitely. Organizations and businesses that plan to lobby MPPs and staff in the coming months will be doing so virtually and by phone. Even when things eventually get back to normal, virtual interactions with government officials will be standard practice.
There have been rumours of the possibility of an early spring election, but don’t count on it just yet. Some will say Premier Ford has never enjoyed such high popularity, but he’s going to be very busy with economic recovery and unlikely to force an election that most Ontarians are not interested in.
The team at Grassroots will be closely monitoring events at the legislature for the coming weeks. Stay safe and stay positive. 2020 has less than 3 months left!