Peter Seemann

Peter is the Principal & Senior Consultant at Grassroots Public Affairs and is based in Toronto. Peter can be contacted at peter@grassrootspa.ca.


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.

Government Priorities

Healthcare

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.

Education

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.

Economic Recovery

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.

Next Steps?

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!

Peter Seemann is a Senior Consultant and Principal of Grassroots Public Affairs and is based in Toronto. Peter can be contacted at peter@grassrootspa.ca.


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.

COVID-19 Reopening

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.

Provincial Budget

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.

Cabinet Shuffle

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:

Photo of MPP Stan Cho

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.

Photo of MPP Michael Parsa

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.

Photo of MPP Christine Hogarth

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.

Photo of MPP Nina Tangri

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.

Photo of MPP Lindsey Park

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.

Fall Session

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!

Written by Peter Seemann

Ontario’s new cabinet members with Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell (front row centre). (Image obtained from @fordnationdougford, Instagram)

A little less than a year ago, Ontario Premier Doug Ford stood on the steps of Queen’s Park and was sworn in, along with his then-21-member cabinet. I was there with hundreds of others to witness that historic event and was genuinely pleased to see so many of the hard-working MPPs I had campaigned with be promoted to cabinet. This morning, in an attempt to hit the refresh button, a surprisingly large cabinet shuffle was announced, with many new faces becoming ministers, and several more changing portfolios. Knowing the shuffle was coming, one can always expect surprises, but the volume of changes and some of the reassignments caught many off guard, including me.

Cabinet increased in size to 28 after today’s shuffle, including five newly-created Associate Ministries. Only nine members of cabinet, including Premier Ford, kept their original positions. Twelve members of last year’s cabinet changed roles, and there are seven new faces. When the Ford government announced a smaller cabinet last year, they wanted to demonstrate fiscal responsibility compared to their Liberal predecessors. Now it seems there is a realization that more hands are needed to manage the significant work that needs to get done at Queen’s Park.

In recent months, there has been consistent criticism that the government mishandled communications across several key ministries, including Finance, Education, and Children’s Services. Not surprisingly, there were wholesale changes across all of these senior ministries. Former Environment Minister Rod Phillips takes over from Vic Fedeli in Finance. Phillips is largely viewed as having handled his former role well, despite its challenges, and is considered a good communicator – something the government badly needs as they aim to convince Ontarians of the need to slay the deficit. Christine Elliott stays on as Health Minister; however, as anticipated, her ministry was split and Dr. Merilee Fullerton from Ottawa takes on the Ministry of Long Term Care. In addition, the former Minister of Tourism, Michael Tibollo, assumes the newly created role of Associate Minister of Mental Health & Addictions under the Ministry of Health.

New Cabinet Members

Notable new faces include King Vaughan MPP and former PA to the Premier, Stephen Lecce, who received a significant promotion as the new Minister of Education. Lecce is considered to be a hard-working MPP and now assumes a contentious and difficult ministry. I had the chance to get to know Minister Lecce during last year’s election and there are few that campaigned as hard as he did. Barrie-area MPP Doug Downey, another candidate I got to know last year and a solid individual,  becomes the new Attorney General. Downey performed well as the PA to Finance and is well-regarded as someone capable of entering cabinet. Former federal MP and current MPP for Markham Stouffville, Paul Calandra (another York Region MPP), becomes the new Government House Leader.

Ministers with their Original Role

Among members who maintained their previous roles are Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, Energy, Northern Affairs, and Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford, and Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman. These ministers managed their files well and were generally free of any controversy during year one of the Ford government’s mandate.

Ministers with Different Roles

Some are suggesting that several ministers, including Caroline Mulroney, Lisa Thompson, and Lisa MacLeod, were demoted to lesser roles in government; however, all of their new ministries have important issues for them to deal with. Todd Smith, largely viewed as a great communicator, takes over from Lisa MacLeod in the role of Minister of Children, Community and Social Services. He has a big task ahead to stickhandle the ongoing autism file, but Premier Ford must feel he’s up for the job.

Despite rampant rumours leading up to this morning’s announcement that members would be fired and there would be resignations and by-elections, there were no departures from cabinet. This is important and bodes well for the Ford government in that he clearly still has caucus support and caucus unity. The next year will be critical for this government as they attempt to improve their polling numbers by doing a better job communicating their priorities to the people of Ontario. I suspect the Premier and his staff planned this shuffle before announcing they would not return to the legislature until the end of October. Two thirds of the cabinet just received volumes of new reading material to review during the summer months.

Organizations have a great opportunity to meet these new ministers over the coming months. Need help communicating with government?

Grassroots Public Affairs can help!

I was one of many registered PC delegates who attended last weekend’s AGM in Toronto. Holding a policy convention immediately after an election is not typical, however the party’s constitution mandated one be held. While some media coverage focused on a few controversial policy ideas brought forward, I felt the enthusiastic participation by so many rank and file members was a healthy sign of a party still glowing from political victory.

Over 1000 members from across the province were joined by Premier Ford and his fellow 74 members of caucus. Senior ministers held round table sessions with members and openly discussed their priorities and plans for the new government’s mandate moving forward. Attending conventions gives members unprecedented access to ministers and staff, and I was impressed by the number of caucus members who participated fully in convention activities.

The new government has been clear in the direction they are taking and openly shared, on more than one occasion, the decision-making framework they are focused on, including:

Affordability – cutting taxes, and generally making life more affordable for average Ontarians is a priority across all ministries.

Competitiveness – reflected in the government’s mantra of making Ontario “Open for Business”, this government clearly wants to do everything possible to make Ontario the economic engine of Canada once again. Their initial focus has been on reducing regulations and making it easier for businesses to grow and prosper.

Balance – ensuring a balanced approach towards legislation and regulatory changes that grows the economy while still looking after the best interests of all Ontarians, including social and environmental concerns.

While the first 5 months of this government has not been without some challenges, for the most part the Ford government is pushing forward with a mandate of “governing for the people”. I am enjoying the access I have to so many ministries and welcome the opportunity for worthwhile discussions with key staff and policy makers. Working with industry and the public, this government has an opportunity to rebuild Ontario’s economy and grow our economic base in the coming years. While this convention is early in this government’s mandate, the celebratory mood was well deserved and to be expected.

Peter Seemann, Grassroots Founder & Principal

This afternoon, Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli rose in the Ontario Legislature with his iconic gold tie and delivered the 2018 Fall Economic Statement (FES) named An Act to Enact, Amend and Repeal Various Statutes. To examine the Economic Statement in greater detail, click hereThe FES usually takes place during the months of October or November and is somewhat like a mini-budget or a smaller fiscal equivalent of the State-of-the-Union address that the US President delivers to Congress. The FES is traditionally delivered by the Finance Minister and puts forth the status of the province’s fiscal health. There are a number of similarities between the FES delivered in the fall, and the provincial government’s budget that gets tabled in the spring.While both the FES and the provincial budget examine what the government of the day has accomplished, and what obstacles remain in place, the major difference between the two is that the FES looks in the rear-view mirror, and assesses what the government has done, as opposed to the provincial budget, which looks ahead to what the government of the day will do.

The first FES tabled by the new PC government was rather unique this time around, in that, journalists and members of the Press Gallery underwent a media lockup and embargo. They were forbidden to publish content in the statement before it was read in the house. Media lockups are very common during federal and provincial budgets, but it is hard to recall a time when a lockup took place for a FES.

It may  be argued that the broad overall theme of the FES could be distilled into the concept of “fiscal discipline and belt-tightening”, an about-face from the previous Liberal government’s provincial budget, tabled earlier this year, that focused on “care not cuts”. The Finance Minister was not shy to say that the new PC government will approach the province’s finances the same way a household would manage their budget.

Since elected, the PCs have spent a great deal of political capital pointing out the fiscal mismanagement of the previous Liberal government, and have pledged  to reverse many incumbent policies.  This will not come as a surprise to many, considering Doug Ford announced during his  campaign that he would be cutting $6bn in provincial expenditures.

The FES is also an important time for the government to influence the media channel. Polling has shown that while the PCs maintain the greatest share of public support in the province, many of the announcements and actions have reduced support for the government.

Here are some of the major announcements in this year’s Fall Economic Statement:
  • Minister Fedeli announced that the actions of the government have created $3.2bn in savings while reducing the province’s deficit to $14.5B (a reduction of $500m).
  • The government announced it will be implementing the Low-income Individuals and Families Tax (LIFT) Credit that will affect 1.1m low-income earners in the province. Starting in 2019, workers earning <$30,000.00 will be exempt from paying provincial income tax while those earning up to $38,000.00 will be taxed at a lower rate.
  • In addition to shutting down the College of Trades, the PC government has also axed funding for 3 post-secondary campus Expansions in the GTA.
  • In an attempt to make efficiencies in government, the PCs will merge the independent offices of the Ontario Child Advocate (established in 2007) with the Ombudsman and merge the office of the Environmental Commissioner (established in 1993) with the Auditor General.
  • Twice during his speech, Minister Fedeli stated that the Green Energy Act is being repealed – a statement that drew both cheers and jeers across the aisles.
  • The government announced $90M in funding for 1,100 hospital beds across the province.
  • According to Minister Fedeli, home heating bills have been lowered and gas prices are down 4 cents a litre.
  • As part of the Open for Business Act, the PCs plan to eliminate red tape by 25% by 2022 (no clear definition of ‘red tape’ was provided).
  • Although not much was mentioned on the policy area, Minister Fedeli announced that the PC gov will implement a housing supply action plan to help address the problems in the province’s housing market.
  • The government also announced that it will take a laissez-faire approach to cross-provincial energy infrastructure.
Both the opposition NDP and third party OLP chose to focus on the negative impacts that the proposed $1.4B in cuts will have on those who are already experiencing difficulties. The NDP focused on the government’s labour policies which propose reductions in sick days and removal of the minimum wage. Additionally, the NDP chose to highlight the fact that Indigenous communities and reconciliation were not mentioned in the FES.  OLP Interim Leader John Fraser focused on the lack of support for the Franco-Ontarian community with the closure of a new Franco Ontarian University proposed by the previous government. Both the NDP and the OLP chose to focus on the lack of oversight and accountability the government will experience as a result of the removal of independent legislative offices.It should be noted that a number of media outlets received an advanced copy of former PC Leader Patrick Brown’s new book Takedown. Excerpts from the book show that Fedeli had “dodged a bullet” with respect to an allegation of “inappropriate behavior” by a female PC staffer. In the following hours, numerous current and former PC staffers and MPPs came to the aid of Minister Fedeli. The allegations do not appear to have hurt the Minister, despite the NDP calling for Premier Ford to usher a third-party investigation, and remove Minister Fedeli from Cabinet until such  investigation is concluded. Members of the PC Caucus demonstrated their support for the Finance Minister by wearing yellow/gold ties and scarves.Despite criticism, the PCs are well within their electoral mandate to change or reverse the policies of the previous government. 80% of Ontario voters believed that it was time for change, and the PCs are using this time to implement their own policies “for the people”.

Grassroots will be continuously monitoring the hustle and bustle taking place at the Ontario Legislature in the months to come. Stay tuned for more information and analysis!

Adrian Macaulay, Director of Research & Polling