After the claims of sexual misconduct against then, Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Patrick Brown turned the Ontario political landscape upside down; we finally have clarity. As hasty and contentious as the determination of the new PC leader was; the party has a new head. Doug Ford appears to have won the social conservative vote in order to take over the party election from his rivals. We now have Premier Kathleen Wynne, Opposition leader Doug Ford, and NDP leader Andrea Horwath as the main three parties leaders.
The polls currently show that Ontario is set to turn back to a conservative government after 14 years under the Ontario Liberal platform. Part of this reason is due to the poor polling performance and likeability of Kathleen Wynne as a leader but also due to general sluggishness associated with the current status quo. Yet; the conservatives are also in a bind with low ratings for their new leader Doug Ford and the self-destruction of the conservative platform. The previous party platform built under Patrick Brown has been tossed by the wayside in order to allow Ford’s visions for Ontario come to light. Party platforms typically are a very challenging document because you need to accommodate the general ideology of the party but also pander to individual groups and the public as a whole. If I were to be in the liberal war room I would think that there is a good opportunity here to re-brand the party in order to shift where it sits on the political spectrum. In recent years, Wynne has taken the party hard left in order to take votes away from the NDP to much success. Yet, I think that this has disillusioned many right of center liberals and soft conservatives.
The reset; I believe is required by the Ontario Liberals to win the next election or at least effectively challenge the PC party is to shift back to the center/center-right in order to win those votes back. This would require that the Ontario liberals present a plan that is fiscally responsible and more in line with traditional economics (aka. a budget surplus in good economic times). I think there are three steps that the Liberals need to take in order to win this election.
Ford = Canadian Trump
The Ontario Liberals were likely going to take this route with Ford anyways but I think it could play off well. Ford and Trump share some similar characteristics in their chaotic businessman style and their desire to connect with the ‘common person’. The downside for Ford is that we have seen what a year of Trump has done to America on the international stage and voters may be careful to not want to subject Ontario to the same fate. A poll post-Ontario PC election showed that soft conservatives were 27% less likely to vote for Ford then they were to vote for Elliot or Mulroney. That should be the target audience of the Ontario liberals when they re-brand to try and take away from the conservative party. Policies that focus on debt reduction, budgetary balance and future provisioning (reserves) as their core. The Liberals also need to avoid the mistakes of the Hilary Clinton campaign where she called the Trump voters deplorable; that became a rallying cry for a lot of people to get out and vote. The Liberals should not use the past personal mistakes of Doug Ford or his deceased brother Rob Ford as leverage. They need to keep it strictly to the policy spectrum because of how well Doug Ford connects with this ‘common man’ mentality. If you start to act in such a factor he will turn it over as an elitist vs average Joe mentality such as Trump did and you will lose voters along with embolden the conservative base. Conservative voters tend to be older, wealthier and most importantly are much more likely to get out and vote then other groups of voters can be. That 27% of wavering soft conservative would play a very important role in the victory if the Ontario Liberals were able to convince them that Ford would be dangerous for Ontario and the conservative brand.
Ontario Liberals = Economic stewards
I think that this stage would not only be the hardest part but be the most important. Whether you like the Ontario liberals or not there has been a vast improvement in the economic conditions since the start of the economic recession in 2008. A vast majority can be attributed to the global recovery as a whole and the return of the United States to health. Yet, the liberals were the ones in charge of the recovery and they need to show how their economic policies and practices helped to allow Ontario to recover. The Liberals also need to bring out a plan that will show these soft conservatives and right leaning liberals that they mean business in terms of fiscal responsibility. That means A) bringing in balanced budgets that are supported by more then the budget document. This needs to be supported by the auditor general who has been highly critical of their budgeting. B) Running a surplus and being responsible with it by putting money away to reduce the debt and provide future reserves. Ontario has the highest individual soverign debt in North America and pays billions in interest rates alone. C) Producing a plan that is viable and aggressive to pay down Ontario’s debt. Conservative groups such as Ontario Proud show off the growth in debt under the Liberals as a means to show their economic inability. The federal liberals have the ability to run deficits and push cash out to everyone; the Ontario liberals do not. Economic policy and policy aimed at conservatives will be an important factor in willing those voters who are not sold on Ford’s policies and personal conduct. A large part of the voting population is in the large geographic areas surrounding the GTHA. These areas have been traditionally liberal strongholds but with a new Conservative leader coming from this area it can undermine their hold. It will be vastly important for the Liberals to show how they have improved transit within this region; how they intend to continue this and the process forward. Commuting is a huge deal for many within this region and it will be important to win these people over or hold on to established areas. Taking one from the now dead Conservative playbook would be adding in transit operational costing to the Ontario budget. Covering 5% of the budget for organizations like the TTC/ GRTS etc could be a huge boon to the Liberals.
NDP voters = Strategic voting
Ontario’s Liberals under Wynne have been good to those traditional voters to the NDP. That’s a big part of how they have won their last couple victories to keep themselves in office. This time they need to present themselves as the only real opportunity to stop a Ford run Ontario. They need to promote how they can win over that 27% of voters from the conservatives but they need the help of the right leaning NDP and moderate NDP voters to stop Ford’s Ontario vision. Talking about splitting the left vote to allow for a conservative victory will be important to the potential win for the Liberals. If the Liberals can win over a large amount of NDP voters they can keep themselves in power likely in a minority position. They can also use the lack of ability of Andrea Horwath as a springboard for winning the voters from the NDP. Horwath has let a couple elections or second place finishes split from her grasps and if they don’t want a Ford nation they need to vote Liberal. Given the past history of progressive policies within the party, they can also promote how they will continue to push responsible policies to keep improving the lives of Ontarians. 9% of workers in the workforce make minimum wage; the boost to $14 and the upcoming boost to $15 along with workplace changes are important policies that they can promote to these voters.
Either way; I think that its going to be an interesting election and the outcome will be an important timeframe to how Ontario moves forward. It’s possible that the Ontario Liberals could win even without the plan mentioned above; although a tired party with an unliked leader would be a stretch. As a right of center leaning individual myself my vote is not currently attached to a single party. Had the conservatives stayed with the ‘people’s choice platform’ of Patrick Brown that likely would have gotten my vote. It will be interested to see the ways in which each party tries to cannibalize each other and out maneuver one another. If the Ontario liberal’s lose this election I believe that it will be important for Kathleen Wynne to step down as the leader and to have a party reset. There needs to be new policies and direction brought in because the party itself does seem tired and out of ideas. While taking the best ideas of other parties isn’t a bad idea it also isn’t viable long term.