The new year brings new opportunities for Premier Doug Ford to try to move past the controversies that plagued his government in 2023.
The Greenbelt scandal dominated Ontario politics for much of last year. Although Ford’s government has reversed its move to give select developers the right to build housing in the protected area (potentially boosting their land values by $8.3 billion), the RCMP is investigating how it all happened.
If that investigation results in criminal charges against anyone connected to the government, the Greenbelt will again become front and centre on the provincial political scene.
In 2024, Ford will be facing a new political threat in the form of newly elected Ontario Liberal leader Bonnie Crombie. She in turn will be battling it out with newish NDP leader Marit Stiles to position themselves as best placed to defeat Ford in the 2026 election.
As Ford’s government heads toward the midpoint of its mandate, the PCs will be striving for progress on the promises they made in the 2022 election campaign under the “Get It Done” slogan, starting with a Get-It-Done-themed party policy conference in February.
To get a flavour for what to expect in Ontario politics in 2024, CBC News interviewed strategists linked to each of the three main parties:
- Mitch Heimpel, a former senior staffer in Ford’s PC government, now policy director of the public affairs firm Enterprise Canada
- Jordan Leichnitz, a former senior staffer for the federal New Democrats, now the Canada program manager of Freidrich Ebert Stiftung, a German social democratic foundation.
- Anushka Kurian, a strategist for the federal and provincial Liberals and consultant with McMillan Vantage Policy Group.
All three strategists agree that housing will be an issue that’s top of mind for voters and politicians in 2024. The government is heading into the third year of its 10-year pledge for 1.5 million homes to be built in Ontario, but the pace of new home construction starts so far remains far slower than what it will take to hit that target.
“There are reasons for that [pace] that aren’t in the government’s control, there’s a labour shortage, interest rates make it more difficult to finance construction,” Heimpel said.
“But they have to show progress on housing, especially now that the federal government is finally showing progress,” he said. “They’ve really got to get out of the mud on housing.”
The government walked back several of its key proposals to make more land available for housing, including opening up the Greenbelt, forcing cities to expand their boundaries, and allowing home construction on prime agricultural land.
“They’re going to need to find a new way to tackle that problem if they want to have some success on it in the coming year,” Leichnitz said.
She says Ford’s push to build housing in the Greenbelt fuelled a perception among voters that he’s making decisions to benefit wealthy friends and insiders. Ford’s ability to counter that perception will be crucial for his political future.
The province continues to face unprecedented staffing challenges in the health care sector, with thousands of nurses leaving the profession and more than two million Ontarians going without a family doctor.
The government has made various moves to try to alleviate the shortages — including opening more medical school spots, making it easier to get a nursing degree, and clearing some of the hurdles for foreign-trained health professionals to get work in Ontario.
One of the government’s key plans for the health system in 2024 is to expand the number and scope of surgeries conducted outside of hospitals, including hip and knee replacements, a move that could see more OHIP-covered procedures done in privately owned clinics.
Leichnitz expects the New Democrats to make a strong push on health-care issues in the new year.
“You will see Marit Stiles out there working very hard to define the NDP as the party of health care, and tackling things like unspent money in the health system, how wait times have skyrocketed and of course, private delivery of health care,” she said.
Bonnie Crombie’s challenges
Crombie’s presence as Liberal leader “is going to completely change the dynamics of Ontario politics in 2024,” said Kurian.
“The Conservatives are very well aware that she could pose a real existential threat to Doug Ford in 2026,” she said, pointing out the PCs were quick to invest in attack ads trying to define Crombie as elitist and out of touch, including television ads that aired during NFL games.
“You don’t spend that much money on opposition messaging unless you do see somebody as a threat,” Kurian said.
Crombie’s own challenges will include trying to find ways to boost her profile among voters when her Liberal party is nowhere near as flush with cash as the PCs.
While her election as leader gave the Liberals a nudge upward in polls, the bump so far appears to be nowhere near enough to overtake Ford’s party.
She’ll also have work to do to ensure that left-leaning Liberal supporters don’t move their support to the NDP over concerns that Crombie will shift the party to the right.
Marit Stiles’ challenges
“Marit Stiles has a treasure trove of evidence that Bonnie Crombie isn’t a real progressive, and if she spends two years beating [Crombie] over the head with that, she’s got a pretty good chance of limiting the Liberal leader’s potential,” said Heimpel.
One advantage that Stiles will maintain over Crombie for the foreseeable future: a seat in the Legislature and the opportunity for free publicity that comes with it, through challenging the government in question period.
Stiles faced some rumblings of discontent within her party in 2023 over expelling Hamilton Centre MPP Sarah Jama for what the leader called “unilateral actions that have undermined our collective work.”
There’s an argument to be made that Stiles and her party would have suffered greater political damage among the wider electorate had Jama remained a New Democrat following her controversial comments on the Hamas attack against Israel and the Israeli military response in Gaza.
There is of course a fourth leader of an Ontario political party who merits a mention.
Mike Schreiner will double the size of his Green Party caucus in 2024, when the newly elected Aislinn Clancy joins him in the Legislature as the MPP for Kitchener Centre. However, the Greens’ influence on the Ontario political scene remains limited: the party took just six per cent of the popular vote in the last election.
Other issues to watch for in 2024
One of the first financial decisions the government will need to make in the new year is whether to boost funding for universities and colleges and allow a tuition increase, as recommended by a provincially-appointed panel in the fall.
The panel said the province’s long-running freeze on per-student funding, plus the Ford government’s 2019 move to cut and then freeze tuition fees have put the financial sustainability of Ontario’s post-secondary sector at serious risk.
Without a doubt, affordability will remain a top concern for Ontarians in 2024. Much will depend on how the intricate dance between economic growth, inflation, interest rates and employees’ push for higher wages plays out over the course of the year.
The redevelopment of Ontario Place will be in the spotlight in the coming year. While Toronto mayor Olivia Chow has thrown in the towel in her battle against plans for a luxury spa on the site, the citizens group Ontario Place For All has an early January court date in its bid for an injunction to stop work on the project.
You’ll also hear more in 2024 about the government’s plans to boost the supply of electricity to meet an expected surge in demand. The province intends to expand the Darlington and Bruce nuclear plants and faces an imminent decision about whether to refurbish the Pickering nuclear generating station.
Meanwhile, Ontario is pushing ahead with developing small modular reactors, adding new gas-fired power plants, and procuring new renewable energy projects. The latter is a U-turn from the Ford’s government’s first year in power, when it scrapped hundreds of wind and solar energy projects, at a cost of $230 million.
That’s just a fraction of the nearly $30 billion in taxpayer money the government has spent subsidizing hydro bills over the past five years.
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