He should first know the true state of finances, restore wage increase exemptions and hasten slowly on social agenda
TORONTO: Now that the Ontario Progressive Conservatives have won a thumping majority in the election, it is worth pondering what path may be the most beneficial to the party as well as Ontarians.
In view of their strength in the provincial parliament, nothing stands in the PCs’ way in terms of legislating policy – but this is a double-edged sword. It would be easy to get carried away and push through policies that may not be optimal, with an eye on appeasing selected support groups. Premier Ford will have to tread carefully.
The first and foremost issue is, obviously, the financial state of the province – both at the government level as well as for individual Ontarians. Despite the much discussed crises call for immediate action, the gravity of the assortment of problematic areas requires a cautious approach.
Premier Ford will be under pressure to deliver – or at least appear to be delivering – on various financial issues in a short-time frame. His challenge is compounded by the widely believed possibility that the provincial government’s finances are in a worse state than has been reported by the outgoing Liberal government.
If this is the case, then any revelations as to the actual state of affairs will come out over a period of time. Any policy measures introduced in the interim may turn out to be either inadequate or, worse, wrong choices. If Mr. Ford is forced to change direction as a result of these revelations, that would only confirm a widely held impression of him as an impulsive and ill-prepared politician. Perhaps the best approach for him would be to hasten slowly. This may sound like an oxymoron, but there are practical ways in which he can start making and implementing policy without jeopardizing the overall direction of movement.
WHAT HE CAN DO IMMEDIATELY
For example, there is room for immediate action on the issue of minimum wages. While the large increases legislated by the Wynne government were discussed extensively, and often heatedly, that discussion was taking place in a highly charged political atmosphere. As a result, some of the nuances did not get the amount of airing and emphasis that they deserved.
One such aspect of the new policy was that it removed an exemption for work centers that employed disabled people. Previously, this exemption enabled them to pay less than the legal minimum wage. This was a win-win situation. It allowed disabled people to be gainfully employed, when otherwise they would have faced tremendous difficulty in this regard. Apart from the monetary aspect, there is the equally important aspect of self-esteem of those so employed. The removal of the exemption, coupled with a substantial increase in the minimum wage itself, represented a double hit for the employers. In some cases, their manpower cost nearly doubled. This was, of course, not sustainable, and so many of the disabled people ended up losing their jobs.
Mr. Ford could immediately restore the exemption. By doing this, he would achieve three objectives at once: restore the jobs of the laid-off workers and help them regain their financial independence; at the same time, genuinely claim to be working to address the problems caused by the minimum wage policy of the previous government; and lastly, counter the image of the Conservatives as lacking in compassion.
That is just one example of the steps that can be taken immediately without risking the possibility of an about-turn on policy as the true state of the provincial government’s finances begins to get revealed.
One important indication of which faction within the Ontario PC party has gained dominance will be on the front of social policies – for example, the much-debated sex-ed curriculum. If that issue, or something similar, is taken up in the initial stages of his government, it will be a clear signal that the so-called ‘social conservative’ faction is calling the shots in terms of priorities.
CONSULT STAKEHOLDERS ON SOCIAL ISSUES
Pretty much all of the issues on the social policy front are controversial, and Mr. Ford would be well advised to take a cautious approach on these. At the most, what he should do is to start consultations with the stakeholders on these issues – any actual policy will only have to be advanced at the end, and as an outcome of these consultations.
Considering that nearly 60 percent of the voters who did vote opted for some form of leftist ideology (i.e. NDP, Liberal and Green, in descending order of the share of vote), any hasty or partisan movement on the social agenda would only serve to erode the support for the PC’s in the long run. It may be tempting, in view of the overwhelming mandate that the party has received in this election, to start implementing the agendas of groups that have been feeling a good deal of frustration over the past fifteen years of Liberal rule. However, there is a real risk of becoming overzealous, at the expense of the long-term interests of the party.
The Liberal party has been decimated in this election, and it will take them a long time to regroup and rebuild the party. Consequently, their performance in the next election is probably going to be relatively weak as well (although the example of the federal Liberals bouncing back from their debacle in 2011 is fresh in our minds, it should be borne in mind that a large part of their bouncing back in 2015 was due to the celebrity appeal of Mr. Justin Trudeau; the Ontario Liberals do not have any such mitigating factor on the horizon).
While this may entice the PC’s to become more unabashed in pursuing their agenda, what this really means is that, if the popular opinion turns against the PCs ahead of the next election, the NDP will be its direct beneficiary. The entire leftist vote, together with the disaffected voters who are not necessarily wedded to any party, plus some ‘occasional conservatives’, are likely to migrate to the NDP. By avoiding the excesses that led to the provincial Liberals’ doom, Mr. Ford will have a better chance of getting re-elected.
Let us hope good sense will prevail in the top echelons of the Ontario PC party.