Open up the flood gates! It’s time to play let’s make a deal. Last fall, Premier Wynne released her mandate letters to the newly reconfigured cabinet and among the noticeable changes in the new directives were the absence of the words ‘net-zero’ from the negotiating parameters of the government and its employees.
The phrase ‘net-zero’ came into the lexicon of Ontario budgeting to suggest that if the government were to negotiate deals with its employees, any extra money in compensation would have to come at the expense of some other spending within the ministry. In other words, the ministry budgets were not going to increase to account for increased costs to collective bargaining.
For many public employees, this meant only very modest increases. For senior managers and administrators, it meant a freeze. And for a select few – ahem, the province’s doctors – there was a roll back on fees, which is just a polite way of cutting compensation.
But this, friends, is the lead up to an election year, and the purse strings must undoubtedly be loosened. Now, as details emerge that at least one teachers’ federation has negotiated a 4-per-cent raise over two years in their pre-election top up, one must seriously call into question whether the budget will indeed balance itself. It is difficult to envision a path to balance that does not address public sector compensation.
We may end up calling it another stretch goal, which is the Ontario government’s version of alternative facts. Move over, Kellyanne Conway; we have better wordsmiths here.
Balance shmalance. Far more important than the province’s fiscal position, which isn’t great according to the long range projections posted by the government, is what a deal means for the government.
With both the NDP and the PCs courting public sector employees, the Liberals have little choice but to make friends now. It’s a signal to public sector employees that the government is ready to negotiate with all of them to make them happy and more likely to support the Wynne Liberals in 2018.
Well, maybe not all of them. Doctors and college administrators aren’t feeling the love, but hey, they are one percenters, right? It isn’t like you can see doctors and college administrators stomping on the stump deriding the government. They will all likely take what they can get now because the cupboard is bare. Any new government always starts off by saying things are worse than they first thought. Sign up and shut up. It’s the new M. O. It’s also the Ontario Liberals’ version of the art of the deal.
We have seen this before. When the government is in a hole, they pander to the special interests that help get them elected and appease dissent by opening up the public purse. In the last election, businesses were upset about hydro costs, so the government puts a couple billion up in corporate welfare up so they can’t criticize it if they want the money. PSWs were upset at their deplorable working conditions, so the Liberals promised them a $4 an hour raise, which probably told their patients how great it is to finally be recognized – more bang for the buck. I wonder how many seniors’ homes the Liberals actually lost. Whether it all works out after the fact doesn’t really matter. They need to get over the hump first.
All of these groups of voters are carefully selected and strategies formed to micro-target them with tailor-made messages and promises. It’s the art of a deal, and Ontario Liberals drive a hard bargain.
The goal, of course, is to appease dissent if not to outright garner support. The deal is sealed when you make your option more palatable than the others. The goal is to get Ontarians to think ‘he or she is terrible, and things are not so bad for me personally with the Liberals.’ This requires a massive investment in negative advertising, to which the Liberals do better than most. Don’t be fooled by them telling you otherwise!
Some have suggested that the Liberals will no longer benefit from the legions of third-party advertising that they had invested in. Fear not, Ontarians – the Liberals have figured this out too. You will have a reprieve on endless negative radio and TV ads from third party sources. But, guess what? Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube don’t cost much money, and, if done well, they are more effective in micro-targeting their coalition of voters. Be prepared to be bombarded by digital messaging, mostly negative of course. It’s the other necessary element in sealing the deal on Election Day.
You see, people foolishly count the Ontario Liberals out. They have been down this road before. In both 2011 and 2014, they came into the election wildly unpopular only to emerge victorious. Most have chalked this to the terrible campaigns run by the opposition without giving due credit to the Liberals for engineering their success. Regardless, the Liberal campaign wheels are in motion. We will soon see if history will repeat itself once again.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!