The Doug Ford government enters the winter session of the Legislature with recent polls showing new highs, and the second wave transmission of the pandemic achieving new lows. And while the tone of the session will no doubt remain sobering and serious given COVID-19, there are signals that Queen’s Park watchers should consider.
Since the Legislature last met two months ago, there have been key changes, including the appointment of Peter Bethlenfalvy to Finance Minister. But the recent media narrative has shifted much of the focus around COVID-19 to vaccine availability, which lands squarely on the desk of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The federal government is working to address vaccine availability which could shift the narrative back to vaccine rollout by the spring. And while Premier Ford has deferred to collegiality vis a vis the federal government of late, it will be important to consider the language used to describe pain-points, and how much of a pass the Ford government is willing to give their federal counterparts. Canadians want governments to be working together, but we are also looking with envy to other western countries surpassing us on vaccine availability. If pressure heats up on numbers rising again or a potential third wave, will the province shift its tone and begin to implicate the federal government?
Paid Sick Days
When it comes to the provincial government’s handling of the pandemic, opposition parties continue to place a heavy focus on paid sick days. While the issue heated up in January in media coverage, it has since died down as the province seems to have dug into their posture of deflecting to the federal government’s program – Premier Ford going so far as to refer to an enhanced program as “double dipping” in media interviews today. What will be interesting to watch for is the level of focus that opposition parties place on this item in the months ahead, and whether the provincial government offers any room for a U-turn. What the Ford government no doubt realizes is that abandoning its position will only embolden critics to come harder at other policies that the government introduced early in its mandate, and signal that the government is prepared to cave under pressure.
On the fiscal front, earlier criticism that the province has left contingencies dedicated for COVID-19 unspent was broadly addressed with the Finance Minister’s Third Quarter update last week. While opposition parties continued to throw criticism, media covered the announcement and acknowledged that all contingencies have been allocated. The question for the upcoming session and the impending budget will be around the government’s ability to shift from a “support” narrative for the pandemic, to a “recover” narrative for the economy. In reality, these are two disparate interests that will need to be balanced simultaneously. However, a variety of factors will be motivating stakeholders and the public to look beyond the horizon toward a return to normal. Mistiming or mischaracterizing where public sentiment is at on these issues would be detrimental for the provincial government.
Chief among those issues that operate in relation to a gradual reopening will be the province’s handling of schools and school closures. As schools open and outbreaks return, pressure will mount around the use of rapid tests. It will be important to assess how government responds to this pressure, and the extent to which key players fully appreciate the level of public angst relating to viral spread in schools.
As the government seeks to focus on its core narratives of protecting the population and enabling a recovery, the next months will also see adjacent narratives arising. These should be seen as the foundation for themes the Ford government will seek to take into the next election. Some of these themes will put them on the offence, others will be defensive in nature, but altogether the government will be more calculating, controlled in substance, and focused on delivering on an agenda that shores up its voter coalition for re-election.