TORONTO _ The new year brings new restrictive fundraising rules for Ontario politicians as preparations for the general election in 18 months kick into high gear and each party deals with its own unique challenges.
The Liberals spent much of 2016 under fire for what the opposition called cash-for-access fundraisers where lobbyists looking for government business forked over up to $10,000 for face time with the premier and cabinet ministers.
The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats also held big-ticket fundraisers throughout 2016 to bolster their campaign war chests ahead of new rules that start Jan. 1. The changes ban corporate and union donations, and cap individual contributions to a registered party at $1,200, or $3,600 in an election year, and prohibit members of the provincial legislature and senior staff from attending fundraisers.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees is suing Wynne and two cabinet ministers for misfeasance because of a $7,500-a-ticket Liberal fundraiser with bankers who profited from the privatization of Hydro One.
CUPE admits the real purpose of the suit is to stop the sale of any more shares in Hydro One before the province loses majority control of the transmission utility to a private board of directors.
Despite the attacks over fundraising, it was soaring hydro rates that really had the Liberals on the defensive in 2016, with Wynne admitting she made a “mistake” by not realizing the impact electricity prices were having on people.
Wynne’s popularity has plummeted _ her approval rating is currently lower than 20 per cent _ thanks in part to hydro anger, but she said she can’t govern the province and be beholden to a particular popularity poll.
“If people like me better in a few months than they do now, it’s a bonus, but what I really want is for them to have their lives on track and for them to have what they need,” she said.
Wynne promises to look for ways to provide consumers relief _ in addition to an eight-per-cent rebate starting Jan. 1 _ but Ontarians’ anger over rising bills will likely continue to dog the Liberals through to the June 2018 election.
“Ontario is in a hydro crisis,” said PC Leader Patrick Brown. “Thirteen years of Liberal scandal and waste has led Ontario to having the highest electricity prices in North America.”
The government says Ottawa and Toronto residents actually pay less per month on average for electricity than people in big U.S. cities like New York and Boston.
The Opposition warns the Hydro One sale will send already skyrocketing electricity bills even higher, but the Liberals insist that won’t happen because it is the Ontario Energy Board that sets rates.
The Liberals plan to sell another 30 per cent of Hydro One in 2017 _ they’ve already sold 30 per cent the giant transmission utility _ to raise a total of $9 billion to pay down hydro debt and fund public transit and infrastructure projects.
The NDP said removing the eight per cent provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax (HST) from hydro bills starting Jan. 1 doesn’t even match the 10 per cent reduction from the clean energy benefit that the Liberals scrapped last January.
“They should never have put the HST on those bills in the first place, and everybody knows it,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “Small businesses are doing everything they can to bring down their bills and stay afloat, but they’re watching the cost of hydro grow faster and faster and faster.”
The Liberal’s cap-and-trade plan to fight climate change kicks in Jan. 1, which the government predicts will add 4.3 cents to the price of a litre of gas and about $5 a month to the heating bill of homes that use natural gas.
The Liberals have promised to eliminate the $4.3-billion deficit next year, but Ontario’s financial accountability officer warns there’s “significant risk” the government won’t be able to keep that promise.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa insists he will be able to balance the books on schedule, something the financial markets will be watching very closely.
The province is expected to introduce new rules for bottled water companies in the new year and raise the price for the water they take, which is currently just $3.71 for every one million litres. Ontario also charges a permit fee of $750 for low- or medium-risk water takings, or $3,000 for the 30 per cent that are considered a high risk to cause an adverse environmental impact.
A two-year moratorium on new or expanded bottled water operations takes effect Jan. 1, and the renewal process for existing water-taking permits will be updated in 2017 after a 60-day period for public comment expires at the end of January.
The Liberals will also have to deal with fallout from the trial of two party insiders, including Wynne’s former deputy chief of staff, who were charged with bribery under the Election Act in connection with a 2015 byelection in Sudbury.
There will be another trial in September for two top aides to former premier Dalton McGuinty, who were charged with breach of trust and mischief after the deletion of emails related to the Liberals’ decision to cancel two gas plants just before election day in 2011, at a cost of up to $1.1 billion.
A major task for Brown in 2017 will be to present a unified caucus front as the Progressive Conservatives craft their new policy platform. Brown has been fending off attacks from social conservatives upset that the leader dropped his commitment to repeal the Liberals’ sex-education update. Brown has also been tamping down social conservativism in his own caucus as he tries to brand his party as modern and socially progressive.
The NDP, meanwhile, is struggling to stay relevant as the Liberals outflank them on the left by taking their ideas and passing them as government bills, and after failing to make any real gains in recent byelections. The 2018 election will be Horwath’s third as leader, but she’s not ready to say what happens if she loses again.
“That’s a long way from now and it’s not my first time at the rodeo,” she said. “Once the rodeo is done I’ll determine what happens after that.”