For Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative government, 2020 will bring the midway point of their four-year mandate, a new opponent leading the Ontario Liberal Party, and fresh challenges to keeping their outstanding campaign promises.
A provincial law sets June 2, 2022, as the date for the next election, which means Ford has two years to reverse his low polling numbers. If a week is a long time in politics, two years is an eternity, so plenty can and will happen until then.
Here’s what you should look for from the Ford government and the Ontario political scene in 2020.
The new year will pick up where 2019 left off, with significant labour unrest in the education system. None of the four big teachers unions has come close to securing a contract deal, and the three largest — the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) — will all be in a legal strike position in January.
The most fraught negotiations are with OSSTF, as the government’s push for larger class sizes and mandatory online courses in high school has the biggest impact on that union. The government is sticking to its call for wage increases no higher than one per cent per year, while the unions are looking to keep pace with inflation.
Expect to see further strikes as 2020 unfolds, keeping in mind that the government can call back Queen’s Park at any time for an emergency session to pass back-to-work legislation if the strikes escalate.
For the government, there are risks to such a move, because the province must either send the dispute to binding arbitration or impose the terms of a contract. Binding arbitration could bring a settlement that is more expensive than the government wants, while imposing a contract could be found to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, forcing the province to pay out compensation. That is what happened after the Liberal government imposed contracts on teachers in 2012.
Budget: Take 2
Finance Minister Rod Phillips will try to learn lessons from his predecessor Vic Fedeli’s first and only budget, which triggered weeks of controversy in 2019 for burying program and service cuts that blindsided a wide range of sectors.
Fedeli and Ford’s chief mistake was attempting to sell an austerity budget as something that it wasn’t. To avoid a repeat of 2019, Phillips will need to be forthright with Ontarians and make it clear on budget day what exactly is being cut.
The broader budget challenge for the Ford government was recently made clear by the province’s financial accountability officer. The growing demands for health care and education will soon outstrip the government’s planned spending in those sectors by $5 billion. Phillips can expect close scrutiny of his numbers as he lays out his path to eliminate the province’s $9-billion deficit by 2023.
Under a new law brought in by the PCs, the budget must be tabled by March 31. Since the legislature does not sit during March break, that means it’s almost certain to be presented between March 23 and 31.
Liberal Party resuscitation
The Ontario Liberal Party is now a shell of what it was for most of the past two decades. With just five sitting MPPs, a mountain of debt and a battered network of riding associations, Liberals are hoping their leadership race will inject new life into the party.
Some 25,000 party members will be eligible to vote in early February to elect delegates to the leadership convention, which takes place March 7 in Mississauga.
Six candidates are vying for the job, three of whom have never held elected office at any level. Membership and fundraising figures suggest sitting MPPs Michael Coteau and Mitzie Hunter trail former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca by a significant margin. But if Del Duca doesn’t win on the first ballot, the capriciousness of a delegated convention means anything can happen.
Horwath’s future on the line
On the very day the Liberals choose their new leader, Andrea Horwath will mark her 11th anniversary at the helm of the NDP. Although the New Democrats’ seat count has improved in each of the three elections since then, party stalwarts say privately that Horwath should give up the job if she fails to deliver a victory in her fourth contest.
That means Horwath must use her status as leader of the Official Opposition to stop the new Liberal leader from stealing the spotlight as the chief alternative to Doug Ford. She will need to start showing Ontarians what she would bring as premier and her party will need to strengthen its candidate base so that voters can conceive of the New Democrats as a potential government, instead of perennial opposition.
Carbon tax appeal
The Supreme Court of Canada will hear the Ford government’s challenge of the federal carbon pricing system on March 25, one day after the court hears a similar appeal by the Saskatchewan government of Premier Scott Moe. The two provinces are taking the legal lead in questioning the constitutionality of the Trudeau government’s carbon tax, applied to provinces that do not put a price on greenhouse gases.
Ford has budgeted $30 million to fight the carbon tax, including a TV ad campaign that Ontario’s auditor general determined cost $4 million. Meanwhile, Ontarians filling out their income tax returns this spring will see carbon tax rebates from the federal government amounting to $224 for a single adult and $448 for a couple with two kids.
12% hydro promise
It’s the most expensive promise still outstanding from the PC election campaign: a 12 per cent cut in the average hydro bill. The government is showing no signs of making any headway on that pledge. The price of electricity instead went up in 2019, approximately by the rate of inflation. Just as the price increased, the government ordered hydro companies to change the way prices are displayed on electricity bills.
The government is already spending about $4 billion per year to subsidize hydro rates. Industry estimates suggest a further 12 per cent drop for residential users would cost at least $800 million per year. The PCs had hinted they would partially fund this by using the dividend from the government’s shares in Hydro One. That money — roughly $240 million per year so far — has been spent on other things.
The PCs might be counting on the public either to forget about the promised hydro rate cut, or to no longer care so deeply about their electricity bills.
Health Minister Christine Elliott is leading a major overhaul of how Ontario’s health system is organized, and 2020 will be the year when we start to see the effects.
A key test will be the fortunes of the 24 Ontario Health Teams established during the first wave of the reorganization. Each team — a geographical grouping of hospitals, long-term care facilities, home care providers and community health practitioners — will get its single pot of funding to share among its members, in hopes that the system can shift the burden away from overcrowded hospitals.
Watch for what happens as flu season peaks in January. This is traditionally when Ontario hospitals are most overcrowded and the hallway health-care crisis surges. Don’t expect Ford’s promise to “end hallway medicine” to be fulfilled in 2020.
Work left to do
There remains plenty else on Ford’s to-do list. His wish to spread alcohol sales to corner stores is far from a done deal. The winning bidder to redevelop Ontario Place into what he calls a “world-class destination” is yet to be announced. Despite an agreement with city council, his grand transit plan for Toronto is still merely a colourful map.
A notable test for Ford will be whether he can maintain the less-combative tone he displayed in the final months of 2019. Ford accomplished this in part by taking on Horwath less frequently in question period: he passed on all but one of the questions the NDP leader put to him in the legislature in December. He has also ratcheted back his criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
With more than two years to go until the next election campaign, there’s plenty of time for the scrappy Doug Ford of old to re-emerge.