The 2011 Provincial Election – Challenges and Opportunities for Social Work
The results of the recent provincial election in Ontario have created a situation not witnessed in a quarter of a century. For the foreseeable future, citizens will be governed by a minority parliament. This creates substantial opportunities for our profession but also poses certain risks.
All major parties contesting the election have something to cheer about and also something to regret. The Liberals won a third consecutive mandate which is rarely experienced by one party in Ontario, albeit a minority after two consecutive majorities. As recently as last summer, the Liberals were considerably behind in the polls and many experts predicted a Progressive Conservative (PC) victory. Yet as a result of a strategically savvy campaign and significant missteps by the Conservatives, the Premier turned the tables in the last weeks of their campaign. Although the PCs gained traction with early plans of the campaign, labelling McGuinty as the “tax man”, and perceived negative advertising in the absence of positive alternatives caused Ontarians to ultimately choose a message of “stability” in “uncertain times” over a message of supporting “change”. However, the Conservatives did increase their share of the popular vote, almost equalling the Liberals, but were unsuccessful in garnering support in larger urban areas. Yet PC leader Tim Hudak did manage to increase their seat count. Nonetheless, the party, considered the government-in-waiting, failed to capitalize on key issues that could have benefitted them electorally such as the sluggish economy, so the overall assessment is that they failed to achieve their ultimate objective. The New Democrat Party (NDP), under a new leader, Andrea Horwath, impressed many people on the campaign trail and she did significantly manage to increase NDP support. However, there was no NDP “orange crush” surge such as what occurred in the spring federal election.
Questions abound such as how will Dalton McGuinty choose to govern in a tenuous Legislature? Will he reach out across the floor to the other political parties and to what extent, or will he attempt to govern as if he had a majority or what he has termed a "major minority"? On which issues will the three parties find common ground? The Premier will have to form alliances with the NDP on some issues and with the Conservatives on others in order to remain in power. Although Ontario now has a law setting the election for a specific date every four years, this only applies to a majority government. A minority can fall at any time in relation to a major piece of legislation. Yet no party wants another election in the near term, which means that this parliament will almost certainly endure for at least the next two years barring any unforeseen developments.
How does this volatile situation provide windows of opportunity for the social work profession? It does so because minority governments do not rule with a carte blanche and need to constantly reach out and consult stakeholder groups. They are by definition more responsive and open to input at political and policy levels. For example, back-benchers, committees and MPPs in all parties have the ability to exert influence and are also more accessible. It means as well that the stakeholder groups, including professions, can work collaboratively with opposition parties to pressure the government to answer concerns and become more accountable, as issues tend to get addressed and move forward more expeditiously with minority governments. Normally, the most opportune windows for being heard by governments are three months before an election, as they curry favour for votes; and six months afterwards, as they set their priorities and individual members of the Legislature seek out causes to champion as they establish their identities and consolidate their constituencies. As an election could happen theoretically at any time, they are continually in election mode.
This presents challenges as well as opportunities. It means that politics, which is always in evidence, becomes amplified and partisanship can easily trump policy. In a fast-moving and unpredictable parliament, issues can change quickly and often those issues that are made public and advocated for assertively have a chance of being considered. This is advantageous for OASW, as our Association increasingly accesses relevant government relations information and expertise from our consultants, Policy Concepts, which assist with excellent advocacy as well as community and coalition-building skills.
OASW can build upon the many relationships that we have developed at Queen's Park over time with all three parties, both politically and bureaucratically. The interests of OASW are respected in the corridors of key ministries, and this should continue to serve the profession effectively. OASW’s Government Relations Advisory Committee, along with a growing number of members, have established positive relationships with MPPs in all parties. The Association continues to encourage members to reach out to their local MPPs in this regard, to profile the unique contribution of the social work profession.
The new Cabinet was reduced in size from 28 to 22. The politicians who need our primary attention and will be the focus of our conversations and messaging during the term of this government include: John Milloy, as the Minister of Community and Social Services, replacing Madeleine Meilleur, who became Minister of Community Safety and Corrections and Francophone Affairs and with whom OASW has developed a positive relationship; and Deb Matthews remaining as Minister of Health and Long-Term Care. The Conservative critic for the Ministry of Community and Social Services is Toby Barrett, and for Health is Elizabeth Witmer who has long ties to members of the Association. The NDP critic for Community and Social Services is Cheri DiNovo, and for Health and Long-Term Care is France Gelinas.
Over the next several months, it is difficult to know which issues will emerge and receive priority in this new Legislature which is dependent in significant part on the future of the economy. There is a strong probability that omnibus bills (i.e., bundling together of small pieces of legislation) will be introduced as a mechanism to enact legislation. Issues that are in the headlines now may fade quickly. OASW must foster effective working relationships with all three parties to advance the interests of the profession and the clients we serve. In times of economic uncertainty and likely funding cuts, the skills and services offered by social workers are needed more than ever by individuals and communities. Regardless of where the political landscape takes the province over the coming months and years, social work will continue to advocate for the core values which define our profession to expand the spheres of social justice.
Dan Andreae, MSW, RSW, EdD, LLD (Hon), O.M.C., was OASW President from 1993 to 2000 and from November 2006 to May 2008, and is Chair of the Government Relations Advisory Committee. He was recently honoured at Wilfrid Laurier University during its centennial celebrations as one of, in quoting the University's website, "100 of [their] most exceptional alumni".