As with much since last month’s Ontario election, Thursday’s Speech from the Throne appeared at first glance to be about new beginnings – a Premier now with her own mandate, and without the constraints of a minority legislature, able to govern as she sees fit.
Queen’s Park’s unusual little summer sitting, though, is really just the end of the first chapter of Kathleen Wynne’s government. And the sooner it’s over the better, because her Liberals have an awful lot of thinking to do about what the second one will look like.
A government saddled with a $12.5-billion deficit, newly placed on negative watch by one credit-rating agency and facing potential downgrades from others, would normally get as much unpleasant stuff as possible out of the way in its first postelection budget. That’s not an option in this case, because the Liberals committed to quickly reintroducing the campaign-oriented budget rejected by opposition parties this spring.
As has been widely pointed out, for all of its new infrastructure and social-spending commitments and its creation of a new provincial pension plan, that document (which will be reintroduced on July 14, and easily pass this time) all but telegraphs a pivot in the near future. That’s because it projects, with very few details as to how it’s supposed to work, a flat-lining of provincial expenditures starting in 2015-16 and aimed at returning to balance by 2017-18.
With the Liberals continuing to insist both publicly and privately that they remain committed to that target, there has been much speculation that they’re secretly plotting something along the lines of the 100,000 public-sector job cuts they railed against when Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives proposed it. But that probably gives the government too much credit for forethought.
No doubt, Ms. Wynne appears poised to do battle with many of the same unions that helped her win back office. That’s a large part of Deb Matthews’ mandate in her new role as president of the Treasury Board, and considering that big contracts are about to come up for negotiation – including those of the province’s teachers – it could produce fireworks in very short order.
But figuring out what sort of concessions they want to extract beyond wage restraint – structural ones that might gradually shrink the workforce, for instance – will require the sort of long-term planning in which the Liberals have rarely engaged since Ms. Wynne took over.
Ms. Matthews is also supposed to be pursuing a “modernization” agenda that presumably includes a complete overhaul of how some services are delivered. And that’s not to mention the questions about which services the government should cease to provide altogether, including but not limited to the potential divestiture of public assets such as Hydro One and the LCBO, currently under review.
If this summer’s sitting is a victory lap, it comes at the end of a very long sprint in which the Liberals never had a chance to slow down and consider precisely these sorts of things. From the time of Dalton McGuinty’s sudden resignation in 2012, Ms. Wynne was in something of a constant campaign – to win his job, to hold on to government in a minority legislature, to fight by-elections, to try to set herself apart in the public’s eye.
The fact that she has boundless energy helped her get through that period. But it also set a pace that her government would be unwise to try to keep now that it has four years to play with.
When the legislature rises late this month or early next, for a break likely to continue into mid-fall, the Liberals will finally have a chance to take a deep breath. They need to take full advantage of it, if they’re to have any hope of being ready for the start of that second chapter.