NDP on the move, Conservatives on the defensive: Robert Fisher

The CBC's Ontario political analyst Robert Fisher says things are looking up for the NDP and people are starting to wonder where Patrick Brown's plan for hydro rates might be.

Robert Fisher's Ontario political analysis appears every two weeks

CBC's Ontario political analyst Robert Fisher takes a look at the changing fortunes of each of the three parties in the Ontario legislature. 9:24

The NDP's Andrea Horwath seems to be leading her party with a new energy. People are wondering where Conservative Patrick Brown's hydro plan is and everyone is waiting for Premier Kathleen Wynne's budget. These are just a few of Robert Fisher's favourite things from Queen's Park this week.  

Fisher spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about challenges facing party leaders as they prepare for the 2018 election. Listen to the full interview by clicking the image at the top of the page or read an edited and abridged transcript below.

Robert Fisher, Ontario politics analyst

Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster tabled a private members bill to make it easier for workers to join unions, why is this important?

On the surface it looks like just another private member's bill from just another opposition MPP with all of the potential dangers of the legislator's order papers. There's a lot of pressure on the government to move ahead with this legislation. Unifor are saying the government has to pass this bill but so far the government has been silent. But in my sense is this is a small, clear attempt by the NDP to rekindle a relationship with labour.

A relationship you may remember from 2014 was really torn apart before, after and during that election when Andrea Horwath tried to push her party in a different direction, more to the middle of the political spectrum. It was a disaster, it cost the NDP seats in Toronto and in areas where they thought they were going to have a breakthrough. We now have her last shot at winning something, as leader of the NDP — no more moral victories will be acceptable under her leadership so you begin to see that she is moving this party back to her roots with connections to labour.

Will this give Horwath a chance to reconnect with her roots in Ontario's labour movement?

Absolutely. Horwath having personal family connections to the labour movement. So, I think this is an important statement for her while it's only the beginning with Miss Forster's bill and it may not go anywhere at least it's a statement by the NDP that they want to go back to things the way they were. You begin to see issues like this being raised, more talk about the issue of poverty, more talk about minimum wage things like that in the context of what's happening with the issue of the day that's hydro rates.

Are you seeing a little more energy in the legislature from Horwath now that there seems to be a push towards union rights and poverty?

The new energy ironically comes from the energy issue. Horwath, in my view, is more forceful in going after the government inside and outside of Queens Park. She's put in her own plan for hydro, promising to cut off 30% for rates, to make hydro totally in the governments control again. Clearly the Conservatives have had a role in this as well to announce not one but two rate cuts. The much bragged about 25% cut that's coming this summer. The so called political equivalent to a Hail Mary pass from the Wynne government to try and stay in power.

The interesting thing is that the energy Horwath brings to the legislature has spilled over to other members of the caucus. You see a much more enthusiastic group as small as they may be in dealing with the government both inside question period and outside the house as well.

Patrick Brown says he needs more time to come up with the parties plan for high hydro rates. Do you think it's going to hurt Brown and the conservatives that they don't have yet their own plan?

You can reject the Liberal plan and you can dismiss the NDP plan for hydro but clearly the Tories are silent on the issue. Remember, as long this issue has dragged on we've heard from the Conservative leader and members of his party that a policy is coming soon. Now we hear Brown saying there will be a plan in place before the next election. The big key here is the W-word 'when.' No one seems to know when that's going to happen. It's going to hurt people who are looking for more definition from Brown, people who may be leaning towards the Conservatives, in fact even some Conservative supporters.

The delay feeds into the Liberal assertion that Brown has no plan because clearly he doesn't yet and won't say when. If this is a key issue it may well be the thing that will define who wins and loses in the next election. For Brown, politically, it would be smart to follow the pattern set by Mike Harris back in the 90s where he brought out his election plan very early and then stuck to the promises that he made once he was Premier. Whether people liked that or not he did make promises and he did keep them. 

​If the polls are to be believed, Patrick Brown is the clear frontrunner as we prepare for the election next year. What are the Liberals saying about Brown that might impact his standing in the polls?

It's a number of things that are happening. Opposition and government parties always want to define their opponents before they define themselves. The Liberals have been a little slow off the mark with dealing with Brown but in many ways he's been a surprise on so many issues it's hard to pin him down. But no longer, they regularly put out news releases to the media and the public by extension going over what they call the facts of what Brown has said. They're now beginning to compare and contrast. I think the best example of that was earlier this week when there were questions about a new report on the underfunding of autism services in Ontario. A report that clearly outraged Mr. Brown.

The back and forth during question period went on until Deb Matthews, who in many ways is the government's new attack dog, got up with a piece of paper. As a MP in Ottawa, Brown had, in her words, said no to children and their families by rejecting, she says, a national autism strategy. Brown kind of called that a drive-by smear but the government then went on and passed that paper over to the education minister who repeated the allegations and then passed that on to the district children services and continued that message. The attack has now gone from Brown has no plan to something personal raising doubts in the minds of voters that the PC leader is a changed man in that drive down the 401 from Ottawa to Queens Park.

If it's true Brown has no hydro plan, it's also true that the Liberals have no budget at least not yet. We're still waiting to hear a date for the budget when do you expect that to come?

I'm going to sound like Charles Sousa when I say this but it's coming soon. It will probably be sometime in the week of April 24. At this point I think they want to get it out. One of his snags has been to come up with a budget, as the Premier calls it, with a packaged proposal to deal with housing affordability, issues facing tenants across the province, not just in Toronto but in what the government likes to call the GTHA because Hamilton is included into this where prices are going up and there's not much housing stock available. Young people are finding it very difficult to get into the market. People are finding huge rent increases. This is a very difficult balance that the government must be involved in.

They made a commitment to help tenants and people trying to buy homes but they also can't turn the market upside down because there could be huge economic consequences. I think there's still a lot of work going and the budget is almost done by Sousa. They're just waiting for the right moment to make that announcement. It's possibly all this housing stuff may be rolled out over time leading up to the next election. It would be a roll out that would be announced in the budget and the details would come in the days and weeks after that but the budget's coming soon because we're getting to that point of no return.