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How the minimum wage hike is playing out politically

The steep hike in the minimum wage is the dominant political issue of the moment in Ontario, thanks in no small part to the response of some Tim Hortons franchise owners.

Heading into Ontario election on June 7, Liberals seek an issue to galvanize voters

Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn meets Nozomi Morimoto, a barista at HotBlack Coffee on Queen Street West in Toronto. She just received her first paycheque since the minimum wage went up. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The steep hike in the minimum wage is the dominant political issue of the moment in Ontario, thanks in no small part to the response of some Tim Hortons franchise owners.

Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals could not have hoped for a better storyline to promote the wage increase that took effect Jan. 1. As first revealed by CBC, the heirs to the Tim Hortons founders cut their workers' paid breaks and forced them to pay more for their benefits because the minimum wage was rising to $14 an hour. 

The Liberals pounced on that news, with Wynne even emerging from her winter vacation to label the Cobourg franchise owners bullies

There's plenty of evidence that the minimum wage hike is resonating politically. People are talking about it around the dinner table and, of course, in the coffee shops. The CBC's original story about the Tim Hortons franchises was viewed 1.5 million times in just two days. 

All the polling I've seen indicates the increase is pretty darn popular among the vast majority of voters. While business types and conservative commentators are grumbling, their numbers are small in the overall scheme of things. It's actually hard to think of a political move that has been more widely embraced in this province in years.

Protesters gathered outside a Tim Hortons location in Scarborough over reports a franchise owner was ordering staff to put any tips they receive into the till, following Ontario's minimum wage increase. (CBC)

The Liberals say they're raising the minimum wage because it's the right thing to do, not because there's an election in June.

Of course not. 

Regardless of what the Liberals say, you can be guaranteed it is an absolutely essential ingredient in their re-election campaign. 

Witness the news conference that Labour Minister Kevin Flynn held on Friday. His chosen location: an independent coffee shop, an unsubtle attempt to gain more publicity off the Tim Hortons brouhaha. The ostensible "news" hook was that it was the first payday for many workers since the minimum wage went up. 

"It is a popular issue, there's no doubt about it," said Flynn. "The public is clearly behind this move." 

But the Liberals still may not get the maximum electoral bang for their buck from this move, if things play out like so: either if voters believe the PCs also support the higher minimum wage, or if voters believe the Liberals did it merely to save their political skin.  

For the Liberals to gain politically from the minimum wage hike, they must achieve what the political strategists call "contrast" with the Progressive Conservatives on the policy, and generate fears about what a PC government would do to the minimum wage if elected.

PC leader Patrick Brown is trying his utmost not to give the Liberals ammunition, by saying he supports the $14 minimum wage, and pledging to move it to $15 an hour, although slowly. (The Liberals would push it there at the start of 2019; the PCs not until 2022.) 

Some of Brown's candidates and MPPs, in their desire to criticize the Liberals, risk veering off-message about the minimum wage:

During his news conference, Flynn tried to raise fears about the PCs, saying he is "convinced by past practice" that they would roll back the minimum wage increase (something PC officials deny).  

"Patrick Brown is trying to have it both ways on this," said Flynn. "He's trying to be supportive of the change because he knows that's what the people of Ontario want. But I think he's trying to satisfy a base that would much prefer that we'd left the minimum wage at $11.60 an hour."

Don't forget that less than a year ago, the Liberals were quite content to leave the minimum wage where it was, rising only by inflation.

The NDP will remind voters of this fact at every opportunity, trying to convince people that Wynne's motives in jumping on the "$15 and Fairness" bandwagon were purely political.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath attended a rally on Wednesday at the Tim Hortons franchise in Cobourg that sparked the controversy, and pointed out that she'd supported a $15 minimum wage well before the Liberals embraced it.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath speaks to reporters at a protest outside a Tim Hortons location in Cobourg. (CBC)
   

"It's taken 14 years for the Liberals to get off their duffs and do something about it," Horwath told reporters. "It doesn't have to be that the only way we make gains for the people is when it's politically opportunistic for the Liberal Party. And that's what I find reprehensible about the situation we're in now, frankly." 

I've been writing since last spring about how appealing to workers would be a key thrust of Wynne's re-election campaign. The political calculus for the Liberals is fairly simple: eat into the NDP's support base as much as possible, try to make the election a two-way contest between the Liberals and the PCs, and send a message to voters that the only way to stop the PCs from winning is to vote Liberal.

PC strategists tell me that a weak NDP is their biggest worry. They fear the NDP vote will bleed away to the Liberals, hand too many battleground ridings to Kathleen Wynne's team, and allow the Liberals to win their fifth straight election. 

If that's does happen, the minimum wage hike will be a key reason why. 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark