Ontario leaders face challenges as Queen's Park breaks for summer: Robert Fisher
From uniting their parties to ducking scandals, province's politicians will have a busy off-season
MPPs are back in their ridings. Another session of the Ontario Legislature has wrapped up ahead of next week's one-year anniversary of the provincial election that had a major effect on all three parties at Queen's Park.
The Liberals, to the surprise of many even in the party, won a majority last June 12. They seemed comfortable and ready to use the levers of power by limiting debate and preventing all-party committees from travelling — forcing Ontarians to come to them to offer their views on various pieces of legislation.
The opposition repeatedly complained, but to no avail. The Liberals often reminded them about who had just won the election and who had a mandate to govern.
More than once, the word "arrogance" sailed across the floor of the legislature from the often over-heated opposition benches to the government side, which by tradition is two sword-lengths away. Good thing, considering the growing animosity between Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath.
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The Liberals were slow to gain legislative traction, mired in the scandals of the past and present. Questions remained unanswered about the February byelection in Sudbury and whether a job or appointment was offered to a Liberal candidate to not run.
That story isn't over, especially after the unprecedented interview of a sitting premier by Ontario Provincial Police anti-rackets squad officers and the report into the scandal that's still to come.
Beyond scandal, there was often controversy.
The spring budget's sell off of 60 per cent of Hydro One generated more heat than light both inside and outside the legislature.
Again, in terms of unprecedented events, there was an open letter to the government signed by, among others, the auditor general and ombudsman. They were concerned the sale would end public oversight of the utility — a concern dismissed by the Liberals.
The sell-off — the opposition called it "a fire sale," while the Liberals called it an "unlocking of the value of government assets" — was given the green light with the passage of the budget, called Building Ontario Up.
But the furor is not going away.
Selling off government assets may not originally have been part of Wynne's political DNA, but it is now. She's made clear she's "determined" not to follow past premiers and ignore the crumbling state of the province's infrastructure and its transit needs.
NDP leader finds her fire
The fight over Hydro One has clearly reignited the political fire in Horwath. She seems to have found her feet again after the disaster that was last June's election.
The "good talking to" she got from party executives did "wonders," says one insider, who gleefully brags about the bump up in recent public opinion polls.
The irony of all that is that — as the Toronto Star's Martin Regg Cohn noted in a recent column — if Horwath hadn`t forced the last election and the Liberals had moved to sell off Hydro One, Horwath, holding the balance of power, could have and, certainly would have, stopped it.
The Conservatives, too, have hammered the Liberals on the sale. They also took on the role of speaking for students and their parents in the ongoing teachers' dispute by making daily calls for Education Minister Liz Sandals to resign.
And yet, as hard as interim leader Jim Wilson and his caucus worked — with newly elected leader Patrick Brown on the outside looking in while he awaits a seat in the legislature — the pleadings have generated only scattered interest from the public and media.
Patrick Brown's big challenge
Brown, the former Conservative MP, is determined to change all of that, even though he's in no hurry to force a byelection with, reportedly, one or two of his MPPs ready and willing to step aside.
Of more immediate importance for Brown is uniting his party after a divisive leadership race. The task seems even bigger with the end of the session.
As the clerk read the roll call of MPPs voting for and against the budget, the name Christine Elliot was not called because she was not there. Elliott hasn't been in the house since she was defeated by Brown, who's been forced to admit his only contact with her has been in e-mails.
Whether or not Elliot will return when the Ontario legislature reconvenes is anyone's guess. As long as she is absent, the words and music of unity will ring hollow.
MPPs are scheduled to return to Queen's Park on Sept. 15. If the teachers and government remain at war over new contracts, count on the opposition and the Liberals to pick up where they left off at adjournment, fighting the last general election all over again while preparing for the next one in June, 2018.