Speech from the Throne: A Government for the People

On June 7, Ontarians elected a new Progressive Conservative government; Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet were sworn in three weeks later, on June 29. Since then the government has moved quickly on key initiatives including Hydro One, spending, and the education curriculum. Ford’s team is keen to show quick action on issues they feel motivated voters to cast their ballots for them, as well as to signal a meaningful change from the old way of doing business.

To that end, the Tories confirmed on July 10 that they would be recalling the Ontario legislature for a rare summer session to deal with immediate priorities by passing legislation to end the York University strike, begin the process of removing Ontario from the cap-and-trade market shared with Quebec and California, and cancel a wind energy project in Prince Edward County. The session is expected to last two to three weeks. The house resumed on July 11 with the election of PC MPP Ted Arnott as Speaker of the house. Today sees the new government’s first speech from the throne.

WHAT IS THE SPEECH FROM THE THRONE?

The speech from the throne is a parliamentary tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of constitutional monarchy as a device for the king or queen to outline the parliamentary agenda. Today it is written by the Premier and his staff, typically with input from cabinet, and is delivered by the lieutenant governor (as representative of the Queen) at the beginning of every session of parliament.

The speech sets out the government’s policy program for the upcoming session – which typically lasts about half of a government’s mandate, or two years. It will fill in detail and build on previous announcements and commitments to set a clear legislative agenda. While government may adjust plans or introduce additional legislation as circumstances require, typically the throne speech is a good road-map of what to expect in the legislative session to come. Media, opposition and party activists will use it as a benchmark for determining whether the government has fulfilled its promises. As such, it is a highly political document, with drafters attempting a balance between detail on legislative priorities and ensuring flexibility to change or tailor plans.

WHAT WAS IN THE SPEECH FROM THE THRONE?

This speech from the throne, more than most, was highly-anticipated given a relative lack of detail contained in the PC platform during the recent election. Stakeholders and political watchers alike were keen to see what the government’s promises would look like in action, and what additional commitments may be forthcoming. With a new government in Ontario for the first time in 15 years – and the first PC throne speech since April 30, 2003 – the lieutenant governor’s remarks would help illuminate the new government’s priorities and tone.

The message

That tone was set by the speech’s title A Government for the People, with lieutenant governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell declaring in the opening minutes of her remarks that “this chamber belongs to the people… the power exercised here must always be – and only be – exercised with the people’s best interest in mind.” Dowdeswell went on to declare that “maintaining and strengthening the bond between the people and their public representatives must always be top of mind.”

This extends the Ford campaign’s central theme, that his government would be responsive to voters’ needs, and strikes an anti-elite tone that we believe will continue to animate government messaging and decision-making. It’s a reminder to legislators, and stakeholders, that policy will only gain this government’s support if its positive impact on the daily lives of ordinary Ontarians can be clearly demonstrated.

As in the campaign, Ontarians were assured the new government will be responsible and accountable – ethical conduct remains a central theme, cutting a contrast with perception of the previous Liberal government. This also means reducing financial burdens on taxpayers, “you should not be forced to pay more and work harder to make life easier for your government.” Other themes from the campaign were repeated: Ontario is “open for business,” building a stronger economy will allow for greater investment in public services, and government must trust the taxpayer.

The speech also embraced Ontarians in all their diversity, including race, gender, and sexual orientation, markedly distancing the PCs from nationalist rhetoric that has fueled right-wing populism elsewhere in recent years.

The agenda

The remarks repeated campaign commitments with little in the way of additional detail or new promises. The government, after all, has had less than two weeks since swearing-in to work on its policy agenda and draft a speech in support of it. The PCs are also expected to defer many decisions until they have had an opportunity to undertake consultation with ordinary Ontarians (which we expect will be standard practice for the next four years) and until the promised value-for-money audit has concluded.

With that being said, the speech reaffirmed platform commitments:

  • Reducing gas prices and hydro bills;
  • Removing Ontario from the cap-and-trade market and fighting federal carbon tax;
  • Providing tax relief to parents, small business and the working poor, and reducing regulations for entrepreneurs;
  • Striking a Commission of Inquiry into the government’s financial practices;
  • Returning to fiscal balance on a “responsible, modest and pragmatic” timeline;
  • Building 15,000 new long-term care beds;
  • Investing $3.8 billion in mental health and addictions, including supportive housing;
  • Increasing supports for the families of children with autism;
  • Eliminating “discovery math” and introducing an “age-appropriate” sexual education curriculum;
  • Keeping the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station open;
  • “Restoring public confidence” in Hydro One;
  • Partnering with municipalities on transit and transportation;
  • Ending green energy contracts where rural municipalities raised objections;
  • Increasing policing tools to combat drug and gang violence;
  • Expanding beer and wine sales to convenience, grocery and big box stores; and
  • Ensuring “fair opportunity” for those competing for jobs (presumably a reference to campaign commitments around professional certification for new Canadians).

Other commitments, all of which were announced following the election, included:

  • Building a monument to Canadian heroes of the war in Afghanistan;
  • Creating a dedicated hotline to provide assistance to military families; and
  • Removing “onerous restrictions that treat (police officers) as subjects of suspicion and scorn.”

The government also committed to “working collaboratively” with doctors, nurses and other front-line care professionals to improve the health system, and repeated the Premier’s previous declaration that Ontario will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the federal government on trade. The government will reach out to U.S. states and others to support trade and a fair NAFTA deal for the province.

RESPONSE

In the house, PC MPPs and their stakeholders in the public gallery lent their loudest applause for comments on cap-and-trade and changing the sex ed curriculum; on the latter point NDP members visibly expressed scorn. Media coverage has focused on hot button issues like the sex ed curriculum and increased police powers (including hints of a return of controversial practices like carding) as well as spending and tax relief.

NEXT STEPS

By tradition, symbolic legislation was passed immediately following the speech from the throne indicating the house’s independence from the Crown.

The government then introduces a motion to approve an address to the lieutenant governor in thanks for delivering the speech. This motion is, in practice, a debate on the content of the throne speech – in other words, the government’s agenda. This debate will carry on for 12 hours over the course of several days, giving every party an opportunity to stake out its stance on the government’s priorities and commitments. As there is only party in opposition having official party status, the debate will be primarily between the NDP and PCs, though we expect the speaker will give the Liberals and Greens an opportunity to speak as well. It will be worth monitoring this debate as it unfolds, to better understand where and how the opposition will be attacking the government’s agenda, and how the new ministers will defend it.

In addition, we expect legislation to be introduced and quickly passed on the three priorities the PCs have identified for this session – namely the York University strike, cap-and-trade, and the wind farm in Prince Edward County. After two to three weeks we expect the house to recess, likely returning in late fall, giving Ministers time to staff up, get briefed, and build more detailed plans for the next four years.

H+K will continue to monitor events closely, gather insights from our contacts in government, and keep our clients abreast of the latest developments – and what they mean for your business.

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