Within the next five or six weeks, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals will present a fall economic statement that should provide clues to the agenda they will take to voters in a provincial election likely to happen next spring.
If only they knew what that agenda is, they'd be all set.
Ms. Wynne has made clear that she places a higher priority on job creation than on the "austerity" that was the focus of Dalton McGuinty's final year in office. But eight months after she became Premier, she and the team around her haven't hammered out what that means exactly. As a result, there appears some risk of exhausting the patience of Ontarians by turning the economic statement – which in the past has often served as a mini-budget – into yet another punt.
Based on conversations with insiders, the Liberals aren't just struggling to settle some specific policy debates among themselves; they're also grappling with fundamental questions. Among those is whether the economic plan will revolve around a series of small policies, or one big centrepiece.
Something flashy – some huge new investment in a particular industry, or generating a major new revenue stream to pay for infrastructure, or taking a major run at income security – might capture Ontarians' imagination and put Ms. Wynne's stamp on her office. But as the government discovered with Mr. McGuinty's Green Energy Act, seizing on a panacea can also wind up doing more harm than good.
Aiming for a comprehensive agenda of less splashy policies that are more easily attainable – narrowly targeted expenditures, tweaks to the province's tax system – could help position Ms. Wynne as a serious premier who doesn't go for quick fixes. But with Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak planning to run on some very splashy policies indeed, including "right-to-work" legislation and a major downsizing of government, Ms. Wynne could look complacent about the challenges facing a province that still hasn't really recovered from a recession that hit five years ago.
Much as Ms. Wynne would prefer not to dwell on a deficit hovering in the range of $10-billion, there remains disagreement about what to do about it.
Senior members of the Liberals' campaign team are said to be pushing for the 2017-18 balanced-budget deadline to be moved back, arguing that it's not a make-or-break issue with voters. Ms. Wynne seemingly remains wedded to the existing timeline, so the odds are it will remain intact. But it does not appear as though she – or, in particular, her left-leaning cabinet – have fully wrapped their heads around what that will entail in terms of spending cuts or revenue increases.
Indeed, there are complaints out of the Finance Department that ministers have been encouraged to push pet projects that would have been rejected out-of-hand in the latter stages of Mr. McGuinty's tenure. That makes it difficult both to set a firm plan to meet fiscal targets, and to settle on a few specific new spending priorities that could form the basis of a budget and a platform.
With all of this unresolved, it's in one sense encouraging that many Liberals are playing down expectations for specifics this fall. Considering the limited dollars the province has to play with, committing to anything that doesn't fit neatly into a concrete plan could leave a bigger mess come budget time.
The answers they're seeking, though, are not going to get any easier the longer they wait. Well past the halfway point between Ms. Wynne's Liberal leadership victory and her anticipated first election at the helm, she's overdue to tell her province what she wants to do with the job.