The past six months have provided Ontarians with an entertaining, terrifying and action-packed election campaign. Many who follow politics regard the time in advance of an election as the ‘silly season’ and with no exception, the political parties and candidates in this 2018 campaign have certainly lived up to the hype.
The pre-writ period saw tremendous support and energy from the Ontario PC’s. The November 2017 launch of ‘the People’s Guarantee’ that, while light on detail provided a brilliant strategy that positioned the PC’s in the middle of the political spectrum. The package included a host of progressive nuggets of public policy, enough to court frustrated Liberal voters and ensure the PC base in Ontario. Consuming this middle ground also forced the governing Liberal’s to scrape away further at the left, which continued to reinforce the PC’s positioning them as ‘tax and spend’ and poor managers of the public purse. Perhaps more significantly, the strategy helped the very likable PC Leader Patrick Brown create distance between comparisons to conservative leaders like Trump, Harper and Harris.
As we watched 2017 come to a close, there was a strong sense that voters in Ontario wanted a new government. The Liberals went into full damage control focused their legislative agenda on delivering incentives to court voters. The spring budget included a host of financial and public policy leavers they felt necessary to win the election. The cornerstone of the agenda hinged on revised labour legislation that included a historic 32% increase in minimum wage and more than 60 changes to labour and employment law. The Liberals strategy sought to use public spending to drive a wedge into the political narrative, as a means of overcoming diminishing popularity.
The Liberals had previously committed to balancing the books for the 2018 election however Finance Minister Sousa’s ‘Fiscal Recovery Plan’ proved to be a sharp U-turn with massive increases in spending and projected deficits well out to 2025. Ontario’s debt to GDP ratio was projected to balloon to 38.6%, and firmly cementing Ontario’s status as the most indebted sub-national jurisdiction in the world. While the Liberals were ready to hand out ‘free daycare’, ‘free prescriptions’ and more, all polling indicated that the voters clearly just wanted to be ‘free’ of the Liberals.
Not to be outdone, the Ontario PC’s have a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Just weeks into the year, Brown faced a scandal that resulted in the leader resigning in January 25th, just five months from the election. Four candidates quickly emerged in the leadership contest, including the first to enter the race, eventual winner Doug Ford. The leadership contest was held March 10, and despite some concerns over the voting process, the party remained focused and united on defeating the Wynne Liberals.
The uncertainty of a new PC leadership and redevelopment of a winning campaign for Team Ford, provided an opportunity for the Andrea Horwath led NDP to gain significant ground. Ford’s own lack of popularity both within the party and amongst the electorate at large created a significant window of opportunity for the NDP who remained predominately an afterthought until the 11thhour of the election. The NDP saw a considerable surge in support in mid-May as Horwath performed better than many anticipated in televised debates and found some momentum. In fact, 70+% of declared Liberal supporters indicated that that would consider throwing their support to the NDP as the next best alternative.
The second debate provided a unique moment for the Premier and her team launched a ‘Sorry, Not Sorry’ campaign that sought to distance personality from electoral record, but this had little influence over voters. Support for the Wynne Liberals eroded so quickly during the campaign’s final days, that the Premier publicly announced on Saturday June 2nd, that a Liberal loss was inevitable. In January, the Liberals were polling as high as 32% in a solid second position behind the PC’s and well ahead of the NDP. The incumbency of government is a natural advantage, however the Liberals declining fortunes met with a ‘change’ minded electorate as popularity dipped to less than 20%. The late-stage projections for the Liberals even had many within the campaign worried about retaining party status in the legislature.
The results of the June 7 election to many, were unpredictable and provided for a wide array of predictions. Would the NPD win a majority? Would there be a minority government? Would there be a coalition? Could the PC’s and Team Ford possibly pull out a majority? The PC’s early leads eroded into a statistical tie with the NDP within days of the election provided significant trepidation for volunteers and organizers in all camps. The only thing that was absolutely clear, was that after 15 years of Liberal governments, Ontario votes were voting for change.
In the end, the Ontario PC party pulled out a clear majority delivering 76 seats with the NDP doubling their presence at Queens Park with 40. The decimated Liberals suffered their worst defeat in the history of Ontario politics, and will now officially lose party status managing only 7 seats. Wynne immediately resigned as leader, setting the stage for a complete party rebuild. And, for the first time ever, the Green Party will have a seat in the Ontario legislature thanks to a convincing win in Guelph by leader Mike Schreiner.
The circus atmosphere of the 2018 election campaign provided no shortage of mystery, wonder and its fair share of WTF moments. The election results will be poured over by strategists and political sciences for years ahead. The challenge however for most organizations is to move beyond figuring out what happened and into the realm of how to deal with it. The new Ford government’s agenda will respond to the votes call for change.
For many organizations this will mean retooling government relations and communication strategies. This will require re-engaging the array of new, untested and unproven MPP’s and political staff on all sides of the legislature. Ford is likely to move quickly to announce his cabinet, likely before the end of the month, and it is likely to be a smaller cabinet. Their agenda will be focused on creating quick wins by increasing economic opportunities and reigning in spending.
Premier-elect Ford and his transition team will be quick to will open the books and look for efficiencies. The question remains for you and your organization is how to influence the new dynamic at Queens Park. How does your organization maintain a presence and focus with a narrow economic agenda? What will Ford and his government’s relationship with Ottawa look like and how can your organization benefit from that? Give us a call, we can help.