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Government Relations in Ford Nation: The Ontario Government Year in Review and Look Ahead

Published on
January 15, 2019

Queen’s Park watchers are well aware of the fast and furious changes experienced in 2018 – from the toppling of Patrick Brown to the ascendancy of Doug Ford to the majority PC government. Certainly, 2019 will offer greater stability in Ontario politics, with the Ford government securely in place. But those expecting a quieter and more predictable year are likely to be disappointed.  

Since June 7, we’ve regularly fielded inquiries about Ontario politics: How does the PC government operate? What motivates them? What does this mean for my government relations objectives and strategy? What’s Doug Ford’s cell number?

With 6 months now under their belt, some trends in the Ford government’s governance approach are clear. Let’s explore today’s Ontario government relations landscape.

How the PCs Govern – and What It Means For You

Based on these first 6 months in government, I offer six observations that should guide any Ontario government relations strategy (caveat: by no means should this be considered an exhaustive list, and my colleagues and I at Sussex would be more than happy to discuss the impact of these and our other observations on your organization).

1. Everything has changed…but the fundamentals haven’t.

The PCs govern very differently from what people have become used to; some sense the Ford government operates radically differently.

All governments have their own styles and peculiarities, but keep in mind the Liberal governments under Premiers McGuinty and Wynne (which offered variations on a similar theme) were in power for 15 years. Some claim government actions and timelines we got to used to over those 15 years are “how it’s always been done” – even though it really should be “that’s how it’s always been done under the Liberals.” So when the Ford government doesn’t follow this script, they seem radical, even though it’s a to-be-expected change in approach from a government of a different political stripe.

Fundamentally, the keys to government relations success, such as executing on a strategy based on a clear objective; understanding the government’s priorities and finding the points of intersection with your priorities to speak from a position of enlightened self-interest; and having a clear ask of government (being mindful of their legislative toolkit, more on that below), remain.

A new government means you need to re-consider your government relations priorities and strategy. But, at base, your objectives and the fundamental ways to successfully achieve these, continue.

2. Open for business is a governing ethos, not simply a slogan.

The phrase “open for business” is omnipresent in Ontario politics today – from road signs to Question Period answers to the name of Government bills.

Being used so regularly in so many circumstances, it is easy to dismiss this phrase as rhetoric. For the Ford government, though, it is much more than a slogan. Philosophically, they believe government, more often than not, messes things up and unnecessarily complicates activities through the regulatory burden imposed on businesses and residents. At the same time, the Ford government’s focus on reducing both Ontario’s deficit and its debt burden has a moral tinge to it – it is simply wrong to keep burdening future generation of taxpayers.

The Ford government is eager to help companies succeed in Ontario. The general form of help is to remove government impediments hampering an industry, rather than creating governmental programs (or other forms of government spending) to bring about private sector success. Similarly, the government’s focus is on reducing taxes, period; they’d rather reduce taxes paid by all rather than, for example, adjusting rates to make it more equitable amongst stakeholders in a particular sector.  

This is a different mindset from the previous Liberal governments. You need to keep it in mind in terms of your messaging and the solution to seek from the Ford government.

3. The Government is always ready to listen, but make sure to do your homework.

The Ford government has shown itself ready to sit down with all sorts of stakeholders: small businesses, unions, big businesses, individuals, even those ideologically opposed to them. Similarly, the Ford government is both opportunistic and acts quickly, so if you have a useful solution to offer on an issue or file, it is always a good time to present it; the government may act on the solution, even if it’s not something that is currently an area of consultation.

That being said, the Ford government expects stakeholders will not be turning to the government for help as a first resort. Stakeholders must understand the Ford government is interested in helping them but isn’t going to do the work for them.

In particular, if there is something in a stakeholder’s power to do (say, public education), the stakeholder should be looking to pull their weight – perhaps an offer to partner with government on public education, rather than relying solely on government’s public education efforts.

For example, those in the cannabis sector would be well advised to pay attention here. More municipalities have chosen to opt-out of hosting retail cannabis stores than was expected (and more still may go down this road), influenced by constituency concerns post-legalization. The new regulations around cannabis edibles – products like gummy bears, cookies and brownies – will be a major focus in 2019. This expansion of legal products will also expand those looking to partake – and will cause great concern for many (particularly about the appeal to minors), even those who haven’t been opposed to legalization. The industry needs to get ahead of these concerns, including by assuring the public of their social responsibility commitment, or else setbacks like the initial 25 retail stores in Ontario will become more frequent features of this regulatory area.

4. Governmental action will be swift and continual (and be sure to read what’s presented).

In its first 6 months in power, the Ford government has introduced 13 Bills and passed 9 of them.

There’s also been many Orders-in-Council passed and other policy changes introduced. (There’s been a lesser emphasis on regulation as the government looks to cut the overall regulatory burden by 25% by the end of its mandate. Even so, there have been some regulations introduced). The period between Christmas and Jan. 2 was – as you’d expect – quieter. Yet there were still 7 government news releases in that period on topics ranging from fire safety on farms to consumer and business fees for a variety of services, plus the release of cannabis retail lottery rules by the AGCO.

For a government, this is a feverish pace. Granted, many of these legislative actions have been done to address policies introduced by the Wynne government and time was a factor, as many were set to come into effect by Jan. 1, 2019. Even so, don’t expect the pace to slow down much in the coming three and a half years.

Stakeholders also need to carefully review the legislation that is introduced. The Fall Economic Statement saw the Environmental Commissioner’s Office, the Child and Youth Advocate and the French Language Services Commissioner consolidated into either the Auditor-General’s or the provincial ombudsman’s offices. This detail was found in the implementing legislation (Bill 57), rather than the Minister of Finance’s speech or the 100+-page Ministry of Finance document.

This combination of speed, volume and comprehensiveness highlights the need to diligently review what gets introduced to ensure stakeholders aren’t caught out unawares. Remember too that beyond the headlines, the government has 4 tools in its toolkit to actually enact a new measure; these are legislation, regulations, policy, and fiscal (tax and spend) tools. As government relations wins can often be achieved “in the trenches” of these four areas, clients are encouraged to dedicate the time and resources necessary to thoroughly analyze each.  It is why I spend a fair amount of my time here.

5. Straight to the People, including digital first.

Mainstream media complains about Ontario News Now (the PC caucus-funded media service running on social media platforms). But it’s a tool used quite effectively by the Ford government to deliver their message unfiltered directly to the 2.3 million Ontarians that voted for them. These videos regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views across platforms, with some (particularly on hydro) being viewed over 1 million times.

ONN builds on the highly successful strategy to digitally target voters during the election. It also reflects how the Ford government looks to connect with its voters. We expect more of the same in 2019.

Stakeholders are well advised of the increasing importance of digital tools in a government relations strategy. Sussex has award-winning digital capabilities that can help put your government relations objective front and centre.

6. Gather your evidence (Alberta is preferred).

Despite claims to the contrary, the Ford government employs evidence-based decision-making. There may be an instinctive, emotional element to decisions and preferences, but ultimately evidence is still sought to support and justify these decisions.

Increasingly, the evidence is coming from Alberta. Several of the labour reforms in Bill 47 (Making Ontario Open for Business Act, 2018)were modelled on those in place in Alberta. The move to private sector retail for cannabis was supported with data from the Alberta experience. And the current consultation on alcohol retailing similarly offers Alberta as a guide. Smart stakeholders would be well advised to research what their sector’s experience is in Alberta when crafting their recommendations.

What It All Means for Your Organization

Successfully engaging the Ford government definitely requires a different touch than under the previous Liberal governments. Our experience is that those who are keen observers of this government’s motivations and who diligently prepare their messaging and their ask of government in light of these motivations can achieve success – and often more quickly than under previous governments. Of considerable interest is that Premier Doug Ford will often signal what his government intends to do before doing it—in the PC platform, in speeches, news releases and in Ontario News Now. Virtually every initiative undertaken in the government’s first six months in office has been foreshadowed by them and expected by those of us who watch, listen and analyze the Ontario government closely.

The current 2019 budget consultation cycle presents a significant opportunity for stakeholders to help shape what will be a defining document for this government’s mandate. But, as with many things in life, you’ve got to do the work. My Sussex colleagues and I would be happy to help you with the heavy lifting.

Brian Zeiler-Kligman
Senior Associate, Provincial Legislative and Regulatory Affairs
A member of the Ontario Bar, Brian has spent his career at the intersection of government, politics, business and the law. Brian works to ensure the public, private and non-profit sectors understand each other’s respective priorities and to create effective public policy that can be supported by all actors.
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