Queen's Park resumes Tuesday with final sprint toward Ontario election day
Patrick Brown's predicament and Kathleen Wynne's fight to survive will dominate final session before June vote
The final sitting of the Ontario Legislature before the June election was bound to be interesting, with the Liberals desperately trying to stave off defeat and extend their nearly 15-year hold on power.
But when you add in the soap opera that is the Progressive Conservative Party right now, you've got the ingredients for a drama that Netflix might consider worthy of a series.
That's the state of play as MPPs return to Queen's Park. The legislature resumes Tuesday, following its winter break, for a sprint to the finish. With election day on June 7, the campaign period officially begins May 9, and the legislature will be dissolved by then, if not sooner. The exact timing is Premier Kathleen Wynne's decision.
Here are the storylines to follow:
1. What will Patrick Brown do next?
Barely two months ago, when the legislature last sat, Patrick Brown sat at the front of the PC benches — the presumptive premier-in-waiting — directly across from Wynne. How things have changed. If he comes to work on Tuesday as MPP for Simcoe North, he'll be alone in a corner, banished from the PC caucus.
Most Ontarians know why. In late January, two women accused Brown of sexual misconduct. He was forced to resign, disappeared from public view and watched from the sidelines like yesterday's man while his party launched a leadership race.
But Brown soon emerged with a PR offensive, through his social media posts and carefully selected interviews. Dramatically, just before Friday's deadline to join the leadership race, interim PC leader Vic Fedeli removed Brown from caucus. But Brown showed up at party headquarters anyway, and spent nearly two hours behind closed doors with party officials before announcing he was entering the race.
What went on during that time reveals the nasty rift in the PCs. Sources aware of the events say his nomination as the party candidate in Barrie-Springwater-Oro Medonte had been rendered invalid, making him ineligible to run for leader. He was forced to obtain fresh signatures from at least 25 party members in the riding in the space of just 90 minutes.
So will Brown show up at Queen's Park on Tuesday? If he does, expect the tensions between him and Fedeli to verge on nastiness. Political theatre at its best. Beyond that, Brown has a mountain to climb. Winning the leadership is anything but a slam dunk. He can also expect tough questions about his claims that he has "cleared" his name by revealing supposed inconsistencies in the stories of his accusers.
2. Will the leadership race distract the PCs?
Fedeli tried to prevent a leadership race from happening, telling a news conference that such a contest would distract the party and take away resources from the goal of unseating Wynne and the Liberals. The party executive decided otherwise. So Fedeli said he would run in that leadership race, but a few days later did an abrupt U-turn and said he wouldn't.
Questions are swirling about the real reasons why he chose not to seek the top job. Ostensibly it's because he needed to "root out the rot" that Brown left behind in the party. (Just in case it's not clear yet: The two of them really, really dislike each other.)
The race has five candidates: Brown, Tanya Granic Allen, Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney. The caucus is split in its support. Will those divisions among the PCs take away from their focus on bringing down the Liberals? Are they too busy stabbing one another in the back to point their knives at Wynne? Will the chaos actually have any negative impact of the PCs' election chances? With some polls suggesting they're on the rise since Brown's ouster, they could be living proof of the old adage that "any publicity is good publicity."
3. Can Wynne pull another rabbit out of her hat?
Don't forget that many people wrote Wynne and the Liberals off in 2013, coming off the gas plant scandal and Dalton McGuinty's resignation. Wynne then won a majority in 2014, proof that she hasn't always been Canada's least-popular premier.
Right now she has approval ratings that make Donald Trump look adored, even though they have climbed in the past year. She has an uphill battle. But there are Liberals who think that combining some popular Liberal policy moves, the PC chaos, a weak NDP and a new electoral map that adds more urban seats could be enough to extend the Liberals' hold on power.
4. What will the budget look like?
The next budget will form the backbone of the Liberal campaign platform. Rest assured it will be an election budget filled with goodies, but what they will be, and even the budget date, have not yet been revealed. Wynne, her strategists and Finance Minister Charles Sousa will pick a date that they believe gives them the best opportunity to showcase the budget in the run-up to the election.
My instinct says they don't want to table it before the PC leadership race ends on March 10: they no doubt want to be able to point out how the new opposition leader is against all the wonderful things they intend to give Ontarians.
5. What does Horwath have up her sleeve?
You'd be forgiven for forgetting there's another party with MPPs at Queen's Park, as NDP leader Andrea Horwath has been next to invisible since the legislature adjourned in December. Horwath did tour parts of the province, trying to get some local publicity on such issues as hospital overcrowding. After a speech to the federal NDP gathering in Ottawa over the long weekend, she used the PCs' turmoil as evidence that party is no shape to take the reins of power.
But the provincial NDP has its own challenges to overcome to persuade voters that it's in better shape. Horwath will be contesting the election with no more than 16 of her incumbent MPPs running again. She put her chief of staff Michael Balagus — the man who was set to run her campaign — on a leave of absence over his alleged handling of sexual harassment allegations against a Manitoba cabinet minister when he was the top aide to the premier there.
Perhaps most importantly, Horwath will have to present a platform that appeals to NDPers who went to the Liberals in 2014 because they felt she abandoned the party's principles. If Wynne and Sousa table a budget targeted to political progressives, Horwath will have to be extremely careful how she criticizes it.