By Richard Forbes.
“In a surprise announcement today, the Wynne government has announced its intentions to raise the Ontario minimum wage to $15 an hour,” says the voice on the radio with all the rolling cadence the reporter could muster. My co-worker turns the dial up, leaning in intently – her face coloured with disbelief. Minimum wage-? Fifteen dollars? Wynne!? The premier we’re supposed to hate!!?
She leans back in her seat, taking a deep breath; no words were needed to say what she was thinking, her face said it all really:
“Does this mean I’m voting Liberal now?”
Her phone rings. It’s another co-worker, then another after that. They trade impressions, sharing their genuine surprise with each. Outside of social media, never before had I seen a government announcement stir such a positive reaction from people. The response couldn’t have been more euphoric if Premier Kathleen Wynne had taken the afternoon to announce a second Christmas for June.
Reversing her government’s earlier commitment to the existing minimum wage ($11.40), Wynne’s ambitious labour plans will give the province the largest minimum wage raise in its history, along with an expansion of workers’ minimum vacation entitlements and personal emergency leave. It’s the first major policy announcement of her tenure to truly reflect the ‘activist’ in the premier’s activist centrism and the vision for Ontario that she presented to voters last election. Having balanced the budget, the Liberals have chosen wisely where to invest their surplus: in people – blue collar workers – the some 1.6 million Ontarians (a quarter of the labour force) making less than $15 an hour.
“For the many,” the mantra goes, “not the few.” The Liberals’ proposed labour reform echoes the passionate campaign of Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn across the pond, who proposed ending the practice of zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships, while pledging more bank holidays, a £10 minimum wage (up from £7.50) and maximum pay ratios. Granted, Corbyn, whose performance in last week’s UK General Election confounded many in exceeding exceptions, did not win, nor were his electoral gains unprecedented. But his success does suggest his anti-austerity, activist message – far from being ‘unelectable,’ as once was expected – was central to resonating to the apathetic and the downtrodden. It’s a win that’s given the Labour party reason to believe Corbyn was always on the right track, reason to inspire centrists in the party to collaborate and work with Corbyn, build on his agenda, rather than write him off as a fool.
While Wynne does not face a similar ideological party divide, a good night for Corbyn is a good night for the brand of activism she wants to bring to Queen’s Park. It’s taken twenty years, but the nineties are over. The western world, post-recession, is tired of the stagnant wages and deregulated McJobs its economy is producing. Electability won’t be decided next election by the hysterical soundbites filling airtime from the boards of trade, chambers of commerce, Bay Street investors and Chicago economists – they represent Ontario’s employers, looking out for their narrow interests – electability will be decided by the barista who makes your americano and the hairdresser who trims your hair: the people that the modern economy has forgotten and betrayed. There may have been a time when voters equated what’s good for employers and what’s good for them and their economy, but that trust has been lost, lost in lies and economic injustice.
Encapsulating the extent to which the Liberals have backed a ‘vote-getter’ is the recent turnaround of pundits: from, only a month earlier, writing a political obituary for Wynne to speculating she might call a snap election a month later.
TVO anchor Steve Paikin has built a compelling case that Ontario might be headed to polls soon, citing rebounding poll numbers, criminal charges, and a laundry list of recent Liberal policy announcements on labour and pharmacare (to add two more to his list: an ambitious plan for a HSR Toronto-Windsor line and Hydro One rate cuts.) However, I would caution against such speculation myself. The announcements, I’d suggest, are a part of the Liberals’ groundwork in readying themselves for next year’s election, while rebuilding their record and their reputation. Calling a snap election opportunistically could be folly on the scale of Theresa May in the UK or the late Jim Prentice in Alberta – especially when the polling is still chilly for the Liberals, even if it’s rebounding.
If a Forum Research poll is to be believed, the Wynne Liberals are tied in the GTA currently but a more optimistic Campaign Research poll from May has the Liberals in a position to win a minority government not unlike McGuinty’s final election. Certainly, those are encouraging numbers for a party that’s been flirting with third party status in the polls as of late, but they aren’t exactly spectacular either – at least not on the kind of order that would inspire wolfish political operators to drop the writs early.
If that logic holds, we’re a year out before Ontario returns to the polls to decide whether this new and improved Liberal government is vindicated in its most recent policy regrouping or whether the province, tired of its incumbents, is willing to back change in the guise of enigmatic PC leader Patrick Brown. For his part, Brown marked the year anniversary before the general election, visiting talk shows including Paikin’s own The Agenda and running a cycle of television ads that showed him appearing to sell audiences an unlimited home phone and internet bundle.
Interestingly, Wynne’s posturing on labour reform places Brown’s PCs, the only major Ontario party not in favour of a minimum wage increase, in a vexing position – supporting the raise would limit his capacity to oppose the move himself and places him on the wrong side of the business community, but opposing the raise could draw the ire of the working class come June 7, 2018 – people like my co-workers, sharing the announcement glowingly, excited by the prospect of a fairer economy. It’s this story of indecision which seems increasingly characteristic of the new opposition leader.
On a $15 minimum wage, Wynne’s activism very well might be politically-motivated, but it’s motivated all the same. The day the policy was announced, Ontarians heard from employers and their representatives lining up on news outlets to speak out against higher wages – most of them presenting a contradictory mess of arguments, “new jobs being created aren’t part time!” and “higher wages could lead to mass unemployment for part-timers (who we just said don’t exist)!” – characterizing existing labour costs as a dramatic red line between a successful business and imminent bankruptcy.
What we heard little of was the continental context – many jurisdictions are moving towards a $15 minimum wage. Nor did we hear much from those actually working for minimum wage: those of whom a living wage could come as a great relief. More unequal a society even than Britain, Ontario has the highest income inequality in Canada based on its Gini coefficient. It’s high time we fought an election on what kind of province we want or rather, whether we wish to continue the coexistence of two vastly different socio-economic experiences of what it means to live in Ontario under one province.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.