Now that the starting gun for the provincial election has been fired, there is one thing we know to be true: the campaign will be defined by the affordability issue, and victory will go to the party Ontarians believe will ease the strain on their pocketbooks. With everyone in the province feeling the squeeze of higher prices, it is hardly surprising that our firm’s new research shows seven in 10 of us have identified the cost of living as the top election issue.
As a result, you can expect political leaders to zero in on this theme as they criss-cross the province on the election trail, taking advantage of an issue that plays out not just in increased household costs, but in the emotional toll those costs take on families everywhere.
It is foundational to political strategy that winning campaigns must promise a better tomorrow — one where people have the promise of hope for a sunnier day. Winning campaigns are the ones that convince voters that better days lie ahead and, in this election, “better” is framed around the affordability of daily life.
But the case for a better day needs to appeal to both our head and our hearts; often, it is the appeal to our hearts that prevails. Just ask former British prime minister David Cameron how brutal it can be when that’s underestimated. Cameron learned that very lesson the hard way when his “rational” referendum campaign, based on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU, was upended by Brexit.
Interestingly in this election campaign, this leading issue actually transcends narrow, traditional ideological boundaries and provides opportunities for each of the parties. What’s more, across the board, several other major policy areas like housing — the third-most prominent issue according to our research — are related to the cost of living.
It became clear this week that the campaigns were beginning to take note. Both the Liberals and the New Democrats, currently trailing the Progressive Conservatives in polled support, rolled out promises targeted directly at this issue.
In my humble opinion, the Liberals nailed it with their “buck-a-ride” transit gambit. Striking at the heart of the affordability issue, it was smart retail politics — while questionable policy — that was brilliant in the simplicity of both the idea and the accompanying messaging. Kudos to the team that put together that chart highlighting exactly how much individual commuters would save each month based on where they lived.
However, for a campaign that desperately needs an inspired push, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has yet to successfully evoke the same feeling as Ronald Reagan did when, in 1980, he exhorted U.S. voters with the “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” challenge to sitting president Jimmy Carter.
The New Democrats have also taken a stab at owning this issue, this week promising both free dental care and 69,000 new affordable housing units, with the emphasis on affordable. The challenge for the NDP, however, is to rise above ideas that are expected of them to ones which the electorate feels are inspired.
All that said, don’t expect Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford’s team to be left behind. Well aware they need to defend against Reagan’s challenge, Ford’s team took the opportunity to remind voters it was the Liberals who hiked licence plate sticker fees and tolled new highways. Having skilfully set up a contrast with their opponents by mailing rebate cheques to Ontarians last month, they promised that, if re-elected, they would never toll a new highway or charge vehicle fees again. Watch for Ford to re-emphasize his cuts to gas and fuel taxes in the days ahead.
In the heat of a campaign, it is easy for teams to get distracted by a multitude of issues and concerns. In this one, the campaign that stays focused on the rawness of the affordability issue will likely emerge the winner.