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Ontario Government Cabinet Shuffle

Published on
January 17, 2018

In what is probably the last such event before the June election, Premier Kathleen Wynne is shuffling her cabinet today, in a move that was both expected and surprising at the same time.

The shuffle was expected in as far as there were three cabinet ministers who had indicated that they would not be seeking re-election in June.  Treasury Board President Liz Sandals (Guelph), Economic Development and Growth Minister Brad Duguid (Scarborough Centre), and Deb Matthews (London North Centre), who had served as Deputy Premier, Chair of Cabinet, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, and Minister Responsible for Digital Government, had all previously announced their retirement from provincial politics.  It has become expected that retiring ministers will leave cabinet, creating the opportunity for newcomers to join.

Less expected were the choices that the Premier made.  While most Queen’s Park observers would have predicted the promotion of MPPs like Yvan Baker or Han Dong to cabinet, the Premier chose instead to lean toward gender equity, regional electoral politics, and getting her economic and political messages out.  

Here is what happened:  

Steven Del Duca (Vaughan) moves from Transportation to Economic Development and Growth

The Ontario economy is humming along.  The province’s unemployment rate is at historic lows.  Yet the Wynne Liberals receive little to no credit for the good economic news.  So, what do you do if you are Premier Wynne?  You reward one of your best communicators, and best performers in cabinet (even the PCs and NDP would concede this) by promoting him into the Economic Development and Growth role, to tell the good economic news story across Ontario from now until the election.  Whether or not Steven Del Duca continues his torrid pace of announcements and press conferences he established while at MTO remains to be seen; however, you can rest assured that he is not moving into this new role to remain passive.  A smart move on Kathleen Wynne’s part.

Kathryn McGarry (Cambridge) moves from Natural Resources and Forestry to Transportation

As McGarry had previously served as the parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Transportation, her learning curve in the portfolio should be relatively short.  McGarry, who is a nurse by profession, should benefit more from being the Minister at MTO, where she can continue the government’s series of announcements about files like GO Transit and high-speed rail in southwestern Ontario.  The voters of Cambridge might be less inclined follow the goings on at Natural Resources and Forestry; given that Cambridge and the greater Kitchener Waterloo Region is one of the few parts of the province that elects MPPs from all three parties, we can interpret this move to intend to shore up Liberal prospects in the region.  Look for more good transit news for that part of Ontario.

Indira Naidoo-Harris (Halton) moves from Minister of the Status of Women and Minister Responsible for Early Years and Child Care to Education

A promotion for Minister Naidoo-Harris, who now moves into one the “Big 3” ministries.  As one who performed admirably in her current role, she will undoubtedly benefit from the additional profile afforded to the Minister of Education—especially if the next provincial budget and Liberal platform include education-friendly announcements. This move, together with that of Eleanor McMahon (below) tells us that the Liberals don’t feel quite as confident about their electoral prospects in Halton Region as they do about some other parts of the province, and felt the need to profile their Halton MPPs more. Naidoo-Harris will keep her Early Years and Child Care responsibilities.

Eleanor McMahon (Burlington) moves from Tourism, Culture and Sport to become President of the Treasury Board

This one is a little curious.  While being the President of Treasury Board is a promotion over being the Minister of Tourism Culture and Sport, there might be a little inside baseball at play here.  Frankly, being the Minister responsible for fiscal oversight makes that minister powerful among her/his colleagues.  However, when was the last time a Treasury Board President made a voter friendly, politically popular announcement? Exactly.  So yes, another Halton Region Liberal MPP gets promoted, so that’s good, especially given that McMahon will be up against PC veteran Jane McKenna in the riding. We can perhaps expect that McMahon, who is a good communicator, will tag team with Finance Minister Charles Sousa to sell the budget, which is expected to be balanced and chock full of goodies, across the province, creating additional media opportunities and profile for her.

Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough-Guildwood) moves from Education to Advanced Education and Skills Development

If politics were like one’s academic pathway, moving from the K-12 ministry to the colleges and universities ministry would be viewed as progress.  Unfortunately, that is not the case in Ontario politics.  We cannot even call this a lateral move; for Hunter, this is a step down.  She has never been one of the Liberals’ best performers in the House, and Premier Wynne, who made her own mark in Education, has decided that Hunter is not the person that she wants to be the party’s primary spokesperson in a policy area that the Liberals need to win electorally, with health and infrastructure being the others.  Hunter will be called upon to sell the Liberals’ revamped post-secondary tuition OSAP remake, and with Brad Duguid’s departure, be the lone remaining cabinet voice for Scarborough.       

Daiene Vernile (Kitchener Centre) is promoted to cabinet, becoming Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport

As mentioned above, the K-W region elects Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.  It has become one of the most interesting battlegrounds in recent elections, and can be expected to continue as such in 2018.  Therefore, it makes political sense for Premier Wynne to appoint a minister from Kitchener-Waterloo in order to improve her party’s chances there.  While one could argue that Guelph and Cambridge have been represented in cabinet for some time, K-W itself has been without a minister since John Milloy left provincial politics.  Vernile, who has served as a parliamentary assistant and on multiple committees, has a background in broadcast journalism.  As an experienced communicator, she will be relied upon to effectively get the Liberal message out until and during the election both in K-W and southwestern Ontario.

Nathalie Des Rosiers (Ottawa-Vanier) joins cabinet as Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry

The former Dean of the University of Ottawa Law School, first elected in a 2016 by-election, is smart, a Francophone, and will help to shore up Liberal support among the Francophone community across the province. Her riding is considered one of the safer Liberal seats in Ontario, so this move is less about saving her seat and more about getting the Liberal message out to French speaking Ontarians.  This is a community that usually votes Liberal, and in the race to come, every vote will count. 

Harinder Malhi (Brampton-Springdale) is promoted to cabinet, becoming Minister Responsible for the Status of Women  

While this may have some people scratching their heads, it really is not a complete surprise that Premier Wynne would add a Brampton seat to the cabinet table.  The city has not been represented in cabinet since Linda Jeffrey left provincial politics to become the city’s mayor. Former NDP MPP and now federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh represented the riding next to Malhi’s before leaving for the federal stage.  With all three parties working overtime to win over southeast Asian voters in Peel Region (PC Leader Patrick Brown just took his 18th trip to India, and his twitter feed ensured everyone saw every stop on the way), there is some logic to the Liberals taking this step to shore up support in that community.  The 905 area has been an electoral battleground for several provincial and federal elections in a row; there is little reason to think that 2018 will be much different.  At a minimum, Malhi’s appointment will enable the Liberals to mitigate opposition charges that Brampton has been ignored. 

Conclusion

Today’s announcement is indicative of what, and where, Premier Wynne and her team believe they needed to reinforce before voters go to the polls on June 7th.  Recall that the Legislature resumes sitting on February 20th (the day after Family Day).  We can reasonably expect that the opposition parties will look for weaknesses in the new cabinet in Question Period, which will become increasingly intense as the election period approaches. 

There is also one more provincial budget to be tabled before the election, which can be expected to form the basis of the Liberal platform.  Undoubtedly, Premier Wynne and her inner circle considered the contents of that budget and the Liberal platform, the electoral prospects and the skill sets for each of these ministers, when contemplating the new cabinet.

Finally, redistribution means that the next election will be contested over 124 ridings, whereas the 2014 election featured 107.  Population growth means there will be more ridings in Peel, Halton, York and Durham Regions; Toronto itself increases from 22 to 25 ridings.  Growth in the GTA, plus the 3-way nature of K-W Region politics, should help to put today’s news into perspective.

As always, please feel free to contact your Sussex consultant for additional information.        

Joseph Ragusa
Principal
A founding partner of Sussex, Joseph has been a Principal at the firm since its inception in 1998. With over 30 years of experience in government, consulting, and politics.
Brian Zeiler-Kligman
Senior Associate
Brian is a Senior Associate in the firm’s Ontario Government Relations practice. A member of the Ontario Bar, Brian has over a decade of experience representing, advocating for and building the influence of businesses in their public policy and regulatory objectives. With a diverse professional background, Brian has expertise in a number of policy areas to meet his clients’ objectives and add significant value to their organizations.
Abid Malik
Senior Associate
Abid brings a unique combination of over 20 years of political, government, private sector, policy, eHealth and technology experience.
Morva Rohani
Policy and Research Lead
Morva leads research and analysis for Ontario and Federal government relations at Sussex Strategy Group. Morva regularly monitors the activities of the federal and provincial governments, providing research, analysis and policy alternatives for clients.
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