Chairman's Desk

‘One lockdown too many’: Ontario’s election will be a messy affair, and leaders must embrace the uncertainty

It was only four years ago today that Ontario Progressive Conservative organizers, staff and candidates were consumed by an all-out sprint to elect a new leader — while managing the predictable party infighting, desperate as they were to present a viable alternative to the Wynne Liberals.

Back in 2018, perfectly naturally, many assumed that this would be the strangest, most unpredictable election of Doug Ford’s career. But they would turn out to be wrong.

Now, less than three months away from Ontario’s 43rd provincial election, Premier Ford and his challengers share one common predicament: uncertainty.

The chronic resurgence and retreat of COVID-19, combined with a convergence of social, economic and political changes, have contributed to an incredibly volatile opinion environment in which it’s difficult to measure even the immediate priorities of the electorate, let alone forecast where they are headed.

There is a sense that Ontarians have had “one lockdown too many,” as a Toronto resident put it to me. As public health restrictions are gradually phased out, I am increasingly optimistic that this election will be about much more than managing the pandemic, focused instead on charting a better path forward for Ontario.

Of course, politics is a game of managing expectations. Just as the Trudeau Liberals campaigned on an expansion of temporary pandemic relief programs and an articulation of longer-term priorities last year, the Ford government will have to balance competing pressures.

Key to their success will be outlining a coherent vision that feels relevant and forward-looking, while at the same time anticipating the probability that Omicron is neither the last nor the worst variant we will face. To put it more simply, they need to get on with the great pursuits of government.

Presently, leaders of all major political parties appear to be in a state of paralysis, keeping their cards close until closer to the writ period. For example, earlier this week the Ford government quietly passed legislation that will delay the spring budget without penalty, a move that’s transparently motivated by a desire for a pre-writ, election-friendly budget document.

While Liberal and NDP leaders have criticized the move, neither have taken it as an invitation to fill the void with their own platforms.

In this instance, timidity will do far more harm than audacity. Rather than waiting to communicate a perfect post-pandemic road map, parties should embrace the uncertainty, resist ideological orthodoxies and demonstrate their willingness to evolve as circumstances change at breakneck speed. It will be messy, and Ontario voters will get a meaningful look at the capabilities of their political leaders.

Being adaptive does not mean being unprincipled. Rather, one of the core tenets of strong political leadership is presenting a value set that is resilient to changing circumstances. To that end, Premier Ford can return to his roots as a champion for affordability — a positioning that was central to his 2018 win.

If it worked well in peacetime, it may prove even more relevant after the economic fallout of COVID-19. Or in the face of an unjust war with massive repercussions for logistics, deliveries and consumer prices. For voters with no elasticity in their budget, these are not abstract problems.

Recent commitments to cancel toll roads and scrap licence plate renewal fees have been right on the mark, but Premier Ford’s more persistent affordability challenge will be rising gas prices. While largely out of his control, this challenge has added pressure around his government’s unmet promise to lower prices by 10 cents a litre.

Issues of this scale and complexity are challenging to address publicly during the best of times, let alone when accompanied by the disorder of an election campaign. However, there is no question that Ford’s re-election prospects will be shaped by his ability to rise to the challenge.

Whether additional variants or international developments throw new hurdles in those plans is anybody’s guess. What’s certain is that the peculiarities of our 43rd provincial election are only getting started.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on March 6, 2022.

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