Setting the tone: What to expect from the PC’s second throne speech

By Alan S. Hale October 3, 2021

With the new legislative session set to kick off Monday with a speech from the throne, political strategists say Ontarians can expect the pandemic to remain at the top of the legislative agenda just eight months before the next election.

“That has to be put forward, everything else falls from that at this point,” said Bluesky Group consultant Cam Holmstrom. “So I am curious to see what they will say about vaccination passports, about exclusion zones around hospitals and schools, about rapid testing for children with no vaccine, and how sports can be in place.”

McMillan Vantage Policy Group vice-president Karl Baldauf believes the PCs are well positioned on their pandemic track record and will be looking to draw attention to successes such as Ontario having one of the lowest per-capita active case rates among the large provinces.

He expects the PCs have learned the painful lesson Alberta Premier Jason Kenney faced after declaring the pandemic over and removing most public health restrictions, only for infections and hospitalizations to then skyrocket. With that in mind, the Ontario government probably won’t make an overt attempt to turn the page to an economic recovery focus.

“That being said, clearly a conservative government wants to be able to fight an election on economic issues, on job creation and affordability,” Baldauf said. “So they will be softening the ground for announcements to come, probably in the spring with the budget to allow the narrative to be brought back to those issues, if possible.”

Holmstrom agreed the throne speech will attempt to polish the government’s pandemic track record (an Ekos poll released this week found 55 per cent of Ontarians disapprove of Premier Doug Ford’s Covid stickhandling) and convince Ontarians that “they are in good hands.” But he suspects the opposition will not have much of a problem poking holes in that narrative.

Covid support spending will be key to PC’s pre-election narrative
The government’s case to voters over the coming months will hinge on spending, both strategists say, albeit for different reasons.

Holmstrom said all it will take to undermine the government’s messaging is reminders to the public that the PCs continually refused to spend all of the money available on anti-Covid measures. But he speculated the government could start loosening the purse strings to blunt that criticism.

“You can’t say you don’t have the money because you’re pocketing the money. So it’s now a choice [to not spend the money on Covid response]. It’s a matter of political will at this point,” said Holmstrom.

Ontario’s program spending in 2020-21 stood $5.6 below the forecasted figure in the PC’s spring budget, which the governing party attributed to lack of necessity as the third wave of the pandemic peaked later than anticipated. The opposition, however, framed the underspending as a failure of the PCs to do everything in their power to address the situation.

But Baldauf believes fiscal restraint could be an asset to Ford if he maintains that approach — despite the attacks of “penny-pinching” being hurled at his government. As the session goes on, Baldauf said he would not be surprised if the PCs begin to reign in some Covid relief and support programs by narrowing criteria to make them more targeted.

With the NDP and Liberals engaging in a “race to the left” and pushing for more spending, Balduf says there is plenty of room politically to be the party of fiscal restraint, and there are many voters who will respond to that.

“The Ford government has not shied away from spending a lot of money,” he said. (Despite underspending from last year’s forecasts, Ontario’s public accounts still detailed the largest year-over-year program spending increase of $16.7 billion.)

“So they’ll be able to point to a myriad of programs and ways to dispense funding, but it would also be nice for them to be able to demonstrate that they didn’t spend any more than they had to.”

Federal-provincial relations loom large
Aside from Covid-related issues, the to-do list for the coming session includes the task of inking a deal with Ottawa on $10-per-day child care. Eight provinces signed onto the federal Liberals’ deal prior to the federal vote, leaving Ontario among the holdouts.

Despite some flare-ups, Baldauf said the federal Liberals and Ford’s Progressive Conservatives mostly kept to their agreement of staying out of each other’s way during the campaign, which sets them up to have a productive working relationship for the rest of the provincial Tory’s term.

“Is this a new era of federal/provincial cooperation?” he wondered, suggesting the ball is now in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s court to prove he can do better when dealing with provinces.

With the prime minister offering substantial funding for child care, Holmstrom argued that, whether he likes the policy or not, Ford “has to find a way to say ‘yes’ to that money.”

“Otherwise that issue will dog him into a campaign,” he said. “I know the NDP and the Liberals would love to run on that. So the most effective thing the premier can do is to agree, and I think we will see the opposition pushing for that when the legislature comes back.”

Finding common ground on the file would help make it easier for women to work and aid the recovery, Baldauf noted, but don’t expect Ford to declare he will sign a deal with Ottawa just yet.

“If you start a negotiation by saying ‘we’re gonna say yes no matter what,’ that wouldn’t be much of a negotiation,” he cautioned.

Throne speech could set the tone for final chapter of term
What tone the government decides to strike on Monday will be telling, said Holmstrom, who wondered whether the PCs will opt to use the harsh rhetoric of an election campaign or deliver a more conciliatory “statesmen-like” speech.

The former might invigorate the party base and raise cash for its campaign warchest, but playing the reasonable statesmen could help increase Ford’s popularity like it did when Covid first struck.

“That’s the big problem for this premier. It all comes down to his style … People expect some growth from him and, early in the pandemic, it looked like he had some growth, but it all went out the window after a few months,” said Holmstrom. “Crises bring pressure, and pressure can crush you or make diamonds. It hasn’t totally crushed Doug Ford yet, but it sure as hell hasn’t made him a diamond.”

Baldauf said he will be watching to see what policy areas the PCs choose to highlight outside of the pandemic.

“It will be interesting to see how the government strikes that narrative around other areas of focus and investment,” he said. “I’ll be waiting to see how that narrative thread is pulled.”