The top five of my 2014 must-watch list:
1. Kathleen Wynne: Until Premier Wynne talked about running her first election campaign on a made-in-Ontario pension plan she was third on my list.
But if Wynne is serious about going it alone in the face of the federal refusal to improve the CPP, the next Ontario campaign will unfold in prime time nationally.
Public policy wonks and political strategists alike will be watching to see whether it is doable, in this day and age, to sell voters on a plan that would force workers and their employers to set more money aside towards an expanded social safety net.
If other provinces buy into the plan; if Quebec agrees to synchronize its own pension plan with Ontario, Queen’s Park would essentially have bypassed the federal government of the day on the way to pension reform.
Whether that amounts to a modernization of the national leadership role that Ontario long assumed in the past or to a full-fledged embrace of a more balkanized social Canada is an open question. But there is little doubt that on Stephen Harper’s watch, the choice increasingly comes down to provincial leadership of the federation’s social union versus no leadership.
2. Pauline Marois: It is no secret that the premier is looking to make Quebec identity the ballot box issue of the campaign. Quebec has had identity-centred campaigns in the past and the issue has usually favored the PQ. But the proposed charter pits Marois against predecessors like Jacques Parizeau. No PQ leader has ever gone to the election barricades on an issue that has deeply divided its own ranks.
If the PQ succeeds into turning its secularism charter into a ticket to a governing majority, the latest cooling-off period on the Quebec-Canada front will come to an abrupt end as Ottawa and Quebec collide in court over the charter and in the political arena over the sovereignty agenda.
3. Stephen Harper: Even if the Conservative party were running high in the polls there would still be a political death-watch on the prime minister in 2014.
The midpoint of a third mandate is when the pre-retirement clock starts ticking on virtually all government leaders — regardless of their ratings.
If a prime minister or a premier is popular, it is argued that he or she should want to leave on a high note. And if — as in the case of Harper — public support has consistently softened, then the argument becomes that he or she will eventually come around to the decision to retire rather than to risk going out on a defeat. For the record, in the past few leaders have opted to stay on after three mandates and a decade at the helm.
4. Jason Kenney: The flip side of the speculation as to Harper’s future is real or perceived pre-leadership manoeuvring. Over the second half of 2013, Kenney managed to have his name come up in every post-Harper conversation.
He strayed from the PMO-issued talking points on the probity of former chief of staff Nigel Wright. He called on Toronto mayor Rob Ford to step down. That resulted in public frictions with Jim Flaherty.
The finance minister is not only Ford’s leading champion in cabinet or the political minister for the GTA. The Canada Jobs Grant initiative that Kenney — as minister of human resources — is tasked to get off the ground was the centrepiece of his 2013 budget. The clash earlier this month between Flaherty and his provincial counterparts over the CPP will do little to make the provinces more amenable to Kenney’s overtures on the labour training front.
It may be wise to not invite these two ministers to the same year-end party. It would also be nice to be a fly on the cabinet wall when it resumes meeting in the new year.
5. Nigel Wright: So far, Harper’s former chief-of-staff has been discreet as to how far into the loop the prime minister really was regarding Wright’s dealings with suspended senator Mike Duffy.
Should Wright face criminal charges, it will be hard for him to mount a full legal defence without filling in some of the blanks that have surfaced between Harper’s version of events and what transpired in some of his top aide’s emails.
Chantal Hebert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs columnist.