Say what you will about Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, she is not going to go down without a fight.
Her approval rating of 12 per cent is so bad that it could triple and still be worse than Donald Trump's. Many political leaders faced with a number like that would resign, and in fact some prominent Liberals have been calling on Ms. Wynne to do just that. They want her gone, and a new leader in place, before the general election scheduled for June of next year.
Instead, Ms. Wynne – who still has many supporters in the party – has undertaken an ambitious legislative agenda aimed at saving her political hide. Over the past year, her government has reformed or promised to reform a lengthy list of hot-buttons items, including political fundraising, the bail system, overcrowded courts, solitary confinement, police carding and the Ontario Municipal Board.
The Liberals have also promised to introduce a pharmacare program for youths under 25 in January, expand rent controls, and lower Ontarians' massive electricity bills by 25 per cent this year.
And on Tuesday, Ms. Wynne delivered what she hopes will be her coup de grace: a sharp increase in the minimum wage, new protections for vulnerable low-wage employees, an easier path to unionization, and other measures to make life easier for workers in an economy that is shifting away from traditional job security.
It's all very NDP, which is the point. Energized by the threat of extinction, and armed with a balanced budget, Ms. Wynne has become her own opposition party. It's like she's been shouting at herself from across the aisle at Queen's Park, demanding that she deal with pressing issues, and then listening to her own harangues.
Thanks to the Premier's activism, the NDP will be less able to outflank her on the progressive front. The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, under new leader Patrick Brown, may find it more difficult next spring to attract voters who happen to be enjoying higher wages, lower utility bills, cheaper drugs and more secure housing.
That doesn't mean, though, that Ms. Wynne has fought her way off the ropes and back into the centre of the ring. Voters' memories may be notoriously short, but voters have other faculties as well, such as the ability to detect the desperation in the Liberals' sudden acquisition of a conscience.
Ms. Wynne's party, you'll remember, was hard-pressed for years to see anything untoward in selling access to the Premier and to cabinet ministers in exchange for donations. It was the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty who backtracked for political reasons and stuck taxpayers with the bill for two cancelled gas-powered electrical generation plants in 2013. It's the Wynne Liberals who bought peace with the teacher's unions by extending their contracts past next year's election date, and promised them a nice reward for their cooperation in future negotiations, if re-elected.
That decrease in your hydro bill? That comes courtesy of the cynical refinancing of the province's hydro-related debt, so that in the long run Ontarians will pay more, while benefiting from lower bills in the short run.
Rent controls? They are popular but may backfire by prompting developers to stop building much-needed new rental units.
And now we have an increase in the minimum wage and other new benefits for wage-earning Ontarians. Some of the measures announced Tuesday are laudable, such as making employers pay temporary workers the same wages as full-time ones, and protecting workers who complain about unpaid wages.
And the higher minimum falls in line with a trend in jurisdictions that lean to the left. Like Alberta, for now anyway, where the minimum wage will rise to $15 per hour in October, 2018.
But Ontario's minimum wage may be rising too quickly. It will jump from $11.40 per hour to $14 on January 1, and then to $15 a year later. Businesses that rely on minimum-wage employees are going to see a 23-per-cent increase in their salary costs in seven months, and an overall increase of 32 per cent when the $15 minimum kicks in a year later.
Those are massive cost increases for businesses to swallow in a short amount of time. So, while there are economic and social arguments for raising minimum wages – especially in an era when the service sector and contract work are growing – the Wynne government should have provided an honest analysis of the impact of its last-minute announcements on Ontario's small and medium-sized companies.
But there was no time for that. Ms. Wynne has been a busy premier for the past 12 months, because in another 12 months she will be in the middle of the election fight of her life. She needs things to announce now so that she can deliver them before the writ is dropped, consequences be damned.
In Ontario, Liberal premiers come and go, but Liberal political expedience never dies.