The Ontario provincial election next June 7 is going to be quite a battle.
The campaign already has most of the elements that political junkies could wish for. To start with there are 15 brand new ridings to fight over – including Kitchener South-Hespeler – as the Ontario Legislature expands to 122 members from 107.
The election will feature a Liberal government that has been in power for more than 14 years and whose leader, Kathleen Wynne, who is deeply unpopular (16 per cent approval in one recent poll). Yet the party has shown great resilience in the past and now is showing signs of climbing out of the depths, just in the nick of time.
The Progressive Conservative opposition has seen its huge lead shrink (down to three points from 22 earlier this year, according to one poll)), and it is a party with a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (as in 2011 and 2014). Yet today it is showing signs of new life, ironically under a leader, Patrick Brown, whom most Ontarians wouldn’t recognize if he popped up at their doorstep.
The New Democratic Party simply has no traction under the veteran Andrea Horwath, who is unable to translate her personal popularity (the highest among the three leaders) into support at the ballot box.
The election-to-be took a dramatic turn at the PC convention on the weekend when Brown unveiled a “People’s Guarantee” – a 78-page magazine-like party platform that, if implemented, would move the Tories out of the shadow of Mike Harris and Stephen Harper (in whose caucus Brown had served when he was an MP) and reposition the party close to the centre of the political spectrum. His model is clearly former PC premier Bill Davis, who dominated Ontario politics by blanketing the middle.
Brown promises he would reduce hydro rates, slowly raise the minimum wage, lower provincial income tax on the middle class, subsidize the cost of private day care, opt in to the federal Liberal carbon-pricing regime, assume ownership and financial responsibility of new subways in the GTA to the tune of $5 billion, and, lest motorists feel neglected, give them a $500 tax credit for snow tires. Oh yes, and the new-look Tories would not worry if all this spending caused them to run a deficit.
Brown gave the unveiling an unTory-like dash of hype from the convention stage when he signed a giant mock-up of the “People’s Guarantee” and made a pledge to the 1,500 delegates that, if he did not deliver on his key promises within four years, he would step down.
The guarantee seeks to put the “progressive” back in Progressive Conservative. More than that, it is an election platform that Kathleen Wynne or Andrea Horwath could probably endorse with a clear conscience. Voters may be perplexed as they try to figure out the policy differences among the three parties, all fighting for control of the crowed centre.
That confusion is part of the Conservatives’ strategy. They know from their polling and focus groups that the Ontario electorate is of two minds. People are ready for change but not insistent on change. For the most part, they are comfortable with the Liberal approach, especially as it has been tweaked by the Wynne government in recent months.
The Conservatives also know from experience not to underrate Wynne. She is a ferocious campaigner. She may be down in the public’s esteem today, but she is just beginning to fight. She can be expected to pounce on any mistakes the Tories make and on any flaws in their platform.
The challenge for Brown is two-fold. He wants to offer the electorate change in the form of a new cast of characters at Queen’s Park, but to do it without dramatically rewriting the generally progressive script that has served the Ontario Liberals well for 14 years. In fact, it’s not unlike the script that worked for Rachel Notley’s NDP in Alberta as well as for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa.
But can it work for Patrick Brown as he tries to move in from the right in Ontario?