Kathleen Wynne's Liberals return to Queen's Park with a new face, but same challenges
Government returns to the legislature to face lingering opposition questions
MPPs return to Queen's Park on Tuesday and among them will be the newest Liberal, former NDP MP Glenn Thibeault.
He will be presented to the legislature by the premier as the new member for the riding of Sudbury.
There will be smiles, handshakes and applause from the Liberals and perhaps even polite welcomes from the Opposition.
But, then the reality for Kathleen Wynne will quickly set in. This new session is going to look and sound a lot like the last one before the Christmas break.
The Conservatives and New Democrats are likely to pick up where they left off and they have plenty of ammunition — much of it provided by two ongoing OPP investigations.
One deals with the so-called gas plant scandal and the other with allegations in the recent Sudbury byelection that saw Thibeault elected.
The premier and her deputy chief of staff Pat Sorbara both deny that anybody offered anything to one-time Liberal Andrew Olivier to stay out of the byelection.
But, then there are those audio tapes that Olivier released and that the OPP are to review. Police may decide they tell another story. In the meantime, the police and Elections Ontario investigations will hang over the Liberals like a dark cloud.
The session will undoubtedly also be focused on government spending, especially the multiple millions of dollars on social assistance computers and the multiple millions more to fix them.
A problem with a new Social Services computer system has gone from what Liberals called "a minor glitch" — one that saw social assistance and disability recipients over-paid, under-paid and in some cases not paid at all — to a major issue. According to the Liberals, this is a glitch that apparently now requires a third party to determine what's going on.
As well, expect the Opposition to continue asking questions about the government's plans to balance the books and, if not, inquire about program and service cuts.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa, for one, has been given ample opportunity to rule out tax hikes and hasn't.
More surgical approach to cuts?
Then just last week, in a speech to the Economic Club of Toronto, Wynne's minister of cuts, Deb Matthews, ruled out across-the-board cuts, suggesting a more surgical approach.
Matthews also made it clear that not all government dollars are created equal, suggesting that some spending then will be considered more important than others.
On top of that there are the ongoing negotiations — or the more apt description, disputes — with public sector unions, teachers and doctors.
With all that and more, the Liberals will have to quickly act to set the agenda for this session — a designed political play, if you will — to try to overshadow the opposition attack. Expect a flurry of announcements to provide some misdirection to what’s going on inside the legislature.
Calling those signals will be their best quarterback in Wynne, who remains popular with voters, who seems coated, so far, in a kind of scandal-resistant Teflon. She can mix it up with the best of them in the daily question period.
Still, it'll be a heavy load in the weeks and months ahead. Can she handle it? Wynne has been underestimated through her entire political career and, to date, has always delivered some return for her party.