Kathleen Wynne's housing plan is crucial to her re-election plan

There's a theme to Premier Kathleen Wynne's biggest policy steps this year.

Ontario's Liberal premier trying to reach millennials and other voters hurt by rising costs

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the new measures are aimed at curbing increases in rents and housing prices that are rising 'faster than people's paycheques.' (Linda Ward/CBC)

There's a theme to Premier Kathleen Wynne's biggest policy steps this year. 

First, you got what the Liberals called "Ontario's Fair Hydro Plan," a move to knock 17 per cent off the price of electricity (after years of rising costs).

Now, you get "Ontario's Fair Housing Plan," a move to cool the price of buying or renting a place to live (after years of rising costs).

Starting this fall, a revamped Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) will, say the Liberals, "make post-secondary education more affordable," (after years of rising costs, giving Ontario Canada's most expensive average tuition).

Yes, Wynne and the Liberals have realized that affordability issues are top of mind for voters. Whether it's the cost of housing, hydro, tuition, car insurance, transportation, taxes, or all of them put together, people are feeling it in their pockets. And they're demanding that politicians make things better (or at least, stop things from getting worse).

As such, whether Wynne's housing plan succeeds will have a significant impact on whether her re-election campaign succeeds.

The polling firm Forum Research asked 840 voters earlier this month: "What is the biggest problem facing Toronto right now?" The response they got most often: the cost of housing.

Given that prices have shot up by 20 to 30 per cent in a year everywhere from Peterborough to Waterloo to Niagara, it wouldn't be a stretch to conclude it's likely a hot issue there too. 

'A tax on other people'

In another poll this month, Forum Research found a "very high level" of support for a foreign buyers tax throughout the Greater Toronto Area, said the firm's president, Lorne Bozinoff. 

"This is a tax on other people, so it's kind of a popular concept," said Bozinoff in an interview on Thursday.

The question everybody's asking now: what will the foreign buyers tax and the rest of Wynne's housing strategy actually do to house prices? The answer is: nobody knows, including the Liberals.

The Liberals hope a foreign-buyers tax, plus the extension of rent control, will help Premier Kathleen Wynne regain some of her popularity and give them a chance to win again in 2018. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Wynne has flat-out refused to state her target for what she wants to happen to house prices as a result of the measures, despite repeated questions from reporters. But she is leaving the door open to further steps.

"We're going to continue to pay attention to what happens in the housing market," she told a news conference Thursday. "If there's more that we need to do, if there are changes we need to make, then we will make them. 

Just as no one knows what will happen to house prices, no one knows what impact the moves will have on voters. 

Bozinoff is not convinced the steps are enough to bring Wynne back from the brink.

Too little, too late?

"It might be a case of too little, too late," Bozinoff said. "It may be perceived that this is something they should have already done."

But keep in mind that the sweeping expansion of rent control is likely particularly appealing to millennials, a demographic the Liberals will be looking to capture in next year's election, hoping to model Justin Trudeau's success with young voters. 

Ontario Liberal strategists say Wynne's move to make home ownership more affordable for millennials is a bid to appeal to young voters in the same way Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals did in 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Millennials are looking at which policies are going to benefit them the most," said Fatin Chowdhury, a campaigner with Generation Squeeze, a national non-profit representing the interests of younger Canadians. 

Chowdury says measures to control rents and help millennials purchase homes are bound to be popular. "Kathleen Wynne is taking some bold steps to address the housing crisis," he said in an interview Thursday. 

Wynne has been fond of pointing out that no silver bullet will cool house prices. There is also no silver bullet to fix her popularity.

'Great Shift Left'

That's why the Liberals hope the housing plan, plus the hydro plan, plus the tuition plan, plus the balanced budget they'll deliver next Thursday, plus more to come, will all combine into a formula for a come-from-behind election win in June 2018. 

For more insight on where they're headed, take a look at what Andrew Steele, formerly an adviser to Dalton McGuinty, wrote in the Globe and Mail this week. He sees Wynne and her party embarking on a "Great Shift Left," a tactic that he believes will prove popular. 

"Shifting left will open up room between the PCs and Liberals," writes Steele, now vice-president of consulting firm Strategy Corp. He says such a move by the Liberals will "polarize the vote" and "make the election a choice instead of a referendum on themselves."

In January, I wrote this about Wynne's unpopularity, arguing that soaring hydro prices only partly explained why she was so low in the polls. Wynne's own strategists admitted that too many voters felt she didn't understand the struggles in their daily lives. The housing plan is their next step in trying to reverse that perception. 


Mike Crawley

Provincial affairs reporter

Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, covering provincial affairs in Ontario. 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. He was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.


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