Chairman's Desk

In Ontario, Get Ready For A Grudge Match

Kathleen Wynne and Doug Ford believe in their bones that their view for Ontario’s future is the right one. Neither can understand the perspective of the other.

And so it starts. Even before the “official” beginning of the provincial election campaign, the deluge of polls has begun.

And the news isn’t good for the governing Liberals. The CBC‘s Eric Grenier, who compiles an aggregation of publicly available polls and has historically been quite accurate in his predictions, says that if an election were held today, it is more likely than not that the PCs would form a majority government.

But the election is not going to be held today. It is, of course going to be held on June 7, after what I predict will be one of the most ruthless and cutthroat campaigns Ontario has ever seen.

Over the last three weeks in this space, I have outlined the strategic options available to each of the three major parties. It is now time to see how they lift those choices off the pages of their plans and into the glare of a campaign.

Here’s what to watch for: how does the desire for change play out?

We know that, when asked, about 8 in 10 Ontarians say it is time for a change. What we don’t know yet is exactly what they mean by that and therein lies the rub.

If they mean that after 15 years they have just had enough of the Liberals, then that’s a challenge for the premier. It’s a challenge because it means that the voters are done and, in the process of deciding they want change, they have stopped listening to what the government has on offer. In fact, they no longer care, they simply want something else. Think Mike Harris after Bob Rae. Justin Trudeau after Stephen Harper. Rob Ford after David Miller.

At these times, voters think things have gotten turned upside down; that the tail is wagging the dog, and that massive, even if disruptive, change is needed.

These are very difficult campaigns for incumbent governments because not only are voters not listening to the new ideas and policies the government is campaigning on, they dismiss messaging that suggests that the opposition leader is not ready to lead, too risky and too inexperienced as fear-mongering and the tactics of the desperate.

On the other hand, if voters want a change in the way government sets its priorities and delivers services to them, then change can mean a change in policies and programs and not a change in parties. In this case, think Alison Redford after Ed Stelmach. Redford skilfully moved her party to the left, embraced a new and changed Alberta and came back from a 22-point deficit to form a majority government.

And so the stage has been set. With Andrea Horwath inexplicably still on the sidelines, the Liberals and PCs are set for an epic grudge match.

Kathleen Wynne and Doug Ford believe in their bones that their view for Ontario’s future is the right one.

Neither can understand the perspective of the other.

That, and both the stakes and the campaign teams, means that we will see a sharpness of messaging unlike what we have seen before. The simple truth is each side will need to be willing to skate into the corners and play elbows up hockey in order to have a chance to win.

How it all plays out will be anybody’s guess but that’s what will make this campaign so fascinating.

In the end, I’m betting it will come down to whether people are feeling precarious or left behind. If they are feeling left behind, that government is not working for them, that special interests have got the upper hand and that the elites are winning at their expense, then that’s advantage Ford.

If, on the other hand, they are feeling precarious, that daily life is getting harder, that enhanced entitlement programs make a difference for them, then that is advantage Wynne.

One last observation as you watch the polls. I’d bet that the Liberals support will be reported as under-represented. I have a hunch more people like some of the new programs announced in last week’s budget than will admit to pollsters.

But, again, that’s just a hunch.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 8, 2018.

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