Throne speeches are meant to lay out the government’s agenda for the legislative session. Throne speeches that happen shortly before general elections also lay out the government’s re-election strategy.
Today at Queen’s Park, the Doug Ford government did exactly that. Here’s the strategy: it’s all about health care.
It worked in Nova Scotia in August. In an election he was widely expected to lose, PC leader Tim Houston chose the theme of rebuilding health care and stuck with it. Voters rewarded him with a majority government.
Back at Queen’s Park, much of today’s speech focused on the government’s plans to spend money on new long-term care beds, more long-term care staff, and hospitals. Those previously announced plans have been denounced by critics as inadequate, but 16 minutes into a 20-minute speech, Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell was still talking about health care.
Making the June 2022 election about health care is not without its risks: Ontario is not Nova Scotia. Unlike Atlantic Canada, Ontario suffered mass casualties in long-term care, and nurses and other health care workers here have borne the acute stress and burnout caused by chronic understaffing in the midst of COVID-19. Many Ontario voters will have trouble forgetting the first three waves of the pandemic.
Still, the strategy could work. When the pandemic started, Ontario already had the lowest number of hospital beds, per capita, and the fewest nurses of any province in Canada. Blaming this situation on “decades of underfunding and neglect” by past governments could be part of the re-election playbook. So could blaming the federal government, which the Throne Speech did today.
Just as importantly, an intense focus on health care may draw the spotlight away from things the government doesn’t want to talk about.
The first is its plan to reduce spending on public services. Today’s speech repeated the government’s mantra that future budgets will be “fuelled by economic growth, not painful tax hikes or spending cuts.” But the 2021 budget laid out a fiscal plan that will see public spending lag behind inflation, population growth, and the needs of an aging population until 2030. Another word for that is “cuts.”
Many critical issues didn’t make it into the speech at all.
"An intense focus on health care may draw the spotlight away from things the government doesn’t want to talk about."
The speech made no mention of child care, its role in the economic recovery, or the fact that the federal government is waiting to spend billions of dollars to help Ontario parents as soon as it can sign a deal with the province.
The speech put forward no plan to help school students recover from the learning and developmental impacts of the pandemic.
The speech observed that “too many workers live too precariously” but failed to signal any boost to the minimum wage beyond the 10-cent pay hike minimum-wage workers got last Friday.
The speech talked about frontline health care heroes but ignored Bill 124, the provincial legislation that is ensuring their wages won’t keep up to inflation.
The words “climate” or “climate crisis” were not mentioned.
The speech contained the word “youth” but failed to mention post-secondary tuition fees (only Nova Scotia’s are higher) and the chronic underfunding of universities and colleges.
Importantly, the speech talked about health care but did not acknowledge that higher social assistance rates would instantly improve the health of hundreds of thousands of Ontarians experiencing poverty.
Today’s Throne Speech was not a change of course so much as a change of emphasis. “Look over here” is a classic political manoeuvre that has elected thousands of governments.
As a campaign strategy, it might not work. But then again, it might.