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Andrew Tumility: For the voters, Ontario's election is staying below the radar
While it may be a low-profile election for the public, in various ways the stakes remain high for the leaders of all three main parties.
By: Andrew Tumilty
Elections are never about nothing.
The last federal election was framed as being about nothing, but afterwards parents in Alberta and Ontario saw their provincial governments sign $10-a-day childcare deals with the feds.
Those deals don’t happen at all if the Liberals don’t win, and the deals signed with other provinces before the election are probably scrapped. For family budgets across the country, that’s not nothing.
Which brings us to the Ontario election. There have been almost daily policy announcements, candidates have been fired or quit, we’ve had two leaders’ debates, and even the revelation that a high-profile cabinet minister once participated in a “slave auction” — a term understandably absent from everyone’s election campaign bingo card.
Yet, there remains a sense that the public is not overly engaged. That’s good news for Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford — as it would be for any incumbent government — and a challenge for Liberal leader Steven Del Duca and NDP leader Andrea Horwath.
The reason people aren’t captivated yet may lie in the polls themselves. Polling on individual issues has shown affordability and cost of living as a top issue for most people. The struggles of living paycheque-to-paycheque don’t leave a lot of mental time to focus on punditry and polls.
While it may be a low-profile election for the voters, in various ways the stakes remain high for the leaders of all three main parties.
The stakes are probably highest for Andrea Horwath. This is her fourth election as NDP leader, and nothing short of a win is likely to save her job. Thus far, the polls show that that happy ending for Horwath is increasingly unlikely — if anything, the party may be trending toward losing seats. It is hard to imagine that her leadership could survive that.
The NDP didn’t defeat a single PC incumbent in 2018. Horwath spent Monday’s leaders’ debate attacking Ford and Del Duca in roughly equal measure. No doubt she would have preferred to focus on Ford and showcase herself as a premier-in-waiting, but tactically, that option wasn’t available. It is the Liberals who are threatening Horwath’s hold on second, and she can’t afford to ignore them.
The stakes are almost as high for Doug Ford. Both Del Duca and Horwath have indicated they would not support a Ford minority government, so he needs to win a majority to stay premier. Polls suggest that Ford is heading in that direction, and his “open book” debate performance is unlikely to affect the outcome in either direction, but there are some interesting numbers to consider.
The PCs have been hovering three to five percentage points below their 2018 result, when they won 76 seats and a comfortable majority. Of those, the party lost nine seats from its caucus as members were dismissed quit, or left politics altogether. At the time the legislature was dissolved for the election, there were 67 government caucus members.
Only 56 are running again, meaning Ford does not have enough incumbents running to win a majority. If the polls continue to dip a few more points — consistently below 35 per cent, for example — the difference of a few new faces in the right ridings may make Ford’s majority more tenuous than it looks now.
Del Duca may have the lowest stakes on the campaign overall, but has the highest stakes in his own riding. Liberals are poised to make a considerable comeback from the disastrous results of 2018. Increasing their seat count either three or even fourfold is an outcome that doesn’t take rose-coloured glasses to see as possible, an idea reinforced by Del Duca’s confident debate performance.
In Vaughan-Woodbridge, where Del Duca is trying to reclaim the seat he lost in 2018, the view to victory is not as clear. If the Liberals go from seven seats to Official Opposition in one election, that’s a story. If the newly minted opposition leader doesn’t have a seat in the House, that’s another story entirely.
It has been an odd election, evidenced by the best debate performance going to the one party leader with no hope of winning government — Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. It is tough to see what campaigns do next, and when or if the public will start to notice, if ever.
In life and politics, change is one of the few constants. It would be prudent for all three parties to expect the last few weeks of this campaign to take a different turn at some point, even if voters continue to look the other way.
Andrew Tumilty has crafted strategic communications and advice for local Liberal candidates and central party campaigns. He is a senior consultant for strategic communications and issues management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty
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