Ottawa·Analysis

What's in store for Ottawa under Ontario's new PC government

Mayor Jim Watson is a former provincial Liberal cabinet member and he offered support at his pals' campaign offices in the days before Ontario elected a majority PC government, so one might worry about the future of municipal-provincial relations.

Mayor Watson has strong Liberal ties. Will that hurt with the new PC government?

Mayor Jim Watson meets with Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford, Nepean MPP Lisa McLeod and Kanata-Carleton candidate Marrilee Fullerton on April 16, 2018. (Mayor Jim Watson, Twitter)

Mayor Jim Watson is a former provincial Liberal cabinet member and he offered support at his pals' campaign offices in the days before Ontario elected a majority PC government, so one might worry about the future of municipal-provincial relations.

And it wouldn't be the first time that Ottawa has lived through fractious multi-level government clashes that have been bad for the city.

History of political personality clashes

In 2006, for example, Conservative Larry O'Brien ran for mayor on a promise to cancel a north-south light-rail system, even though the contract had already been signed by then-mayor Bob Chiarelli — a former Liberal MPP.

During the municipal campaign, local Tory MP John Baird, who was Treasury Board president at the time, withheld $200 million previously committed to the project until after the election.

Critics charged the federal cabinet member was using his power to interfere in a city election. A House of Commons committee even looked into the matter. 

A few years later, after Watson was elected mayor in 2010, there seemed to be no end of public squabbling between him and Baird. Watson took pot shots at the federal government for not building a new science and technology museum, even though they invested more than $80 million in the building. Baird put off funding the second phase of LRT, arguing the federal government's contribution to the plan to reduce the sewage flowing into the Ottawa River counted as this city's "environment" project.

The bickering came to a head in 2014, when the National Capital Commission's politically appointed board of directors —a Baird responsibility — publicly, and startlingly, rejected the city's route for the western extension of the LRT along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway. The spat was so fractious Baird and Watson had to call a 100-day truce. That truce did result in a workable compromise.

MP John Baird and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson had to call a truce to settle their dispute over the LRT expansion. (The Canadian Press/CBC)

PCs back in power

So now the Progressive Conservatives are in power at Queen's Park, can we expect a return to the unruly old days?

In short: probably not.

The local personalities this time around are quite different (although interestingly, Baird is one of the members of Ford's transition team).

The senior provincial Tory in Ottawa is Lisa MacLeod, almost certain to be named to cabinet. Although she and Watson exchanged barbs when they were both at Queen's Park a decade ago, they apparently now get on like a house on fire. Watson calls her "a feisty MPP" who will fight for Ottawa. They even joked on Twitter Friday about how they were once mistaken for a married couple.

Unlike former PC leader Tim Hudak, who said that the province couldn't afford to fund Phase 2 of LRT, Doug Ford told Watson he was committed to Ottawa's light rail project in a meeting attended by MacLeod and Merrilee Fullerton, the newly elected MPP for Kanata-Carleton, whose name is also being suggested as possible cabinet material.

The PCs have committed to moving ahead with the Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital. While they plan to use part of the gas tax  proceeds to lower the price of gasoline, they are guaranteeing that municipalities will keep getting their share of the tax money. 

And perhaps most tellingly, MacLeod has ties to the municipal halls of power after years of  working in Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder's office. She has relationships at City Hall with people from all ends of the political spectrum. People like Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, a known New Democrat who used to work for Ed Broadbent.

"Lisa and I have a lot of common ground — community health centres, mental health issues, affordable housing," said McKenney, who had already spoken with MacLeod by Friday afternoon.

MacLeod, who was first elected an MPP 12 years ago, said she'll take her guidance from council, as well as other local MPPs.

As an example, Riverside South wants the $50-million LRT extension the Liberals promised in the week before the writ was issued. MacLeod said the new MPP for the region, Goldie Ghamari, needs to decide it's worth fighting for — and MacLeod says she'll be on board.

"I'm here to be a champion for my ward of Nepean, but also for the entire city at Queen's Park," she said. "It's up to council to set its direction, and I'm here to help realize that — where I can."

Doug Ford has said he is committed to Ottawa's transit plans. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Still issues of concern

But even though there appears to be a constructive tone in these early hours of municipal-provincial  relations, that doesn't mean everything will go swell.

There are a lot of details to be worked out for this new government, especially as it was elected on a host of expensive promises with little idea of how to pay for them.

Sure, the PCs have committed to keep giving cities their share of the gas tax, but the Liberals had promised to double that amount by 2021. Will that still happen?

In a leaders' debate during the campaign, Ford said he's against supervised injection sites. It now appears unlikely his party will shut down the locations in Ottawa, but it's equally unlikely it will fund new spaces.

And of course, there are many aspects of the PC platform that residents of Ottawa won't agree with, from changing the sex-ed curriculum at schools to freezing the minimum wage hike to dismantling the cap-and-trade system.

The Conservatives were elected on a promise, however vague it might be, to improve the province's fiscal situation. It's hard to know what that might look like when it comes to services and investments. And it's quite likely that at least some residents will find the new government's actions objectionable.

So it isn't that Ottawans won't have any issues with their new government, as they have with all governments before this one.

But at least our newly elected MPPs aren't in an open battle with our city officials. At least not yet.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.