Are the Ontario Liberals back?

For the first time in years, there’s evidence that the Grits are serious contenders again
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 26, 2021
Steven Del Duca's personal polling numbers still lag, but his performance as Liberal leader has improved. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Did you notice anything different about the latest public-opinion poll in Ontario? It showed something we haven’t seen in many years.

Ever since the Liberals were crushed in the 2018 provincial election — and, actually, for a few years before that, too — the party has languished in the polls. Yes, Kathleen Wynne won an unexpected majority government in 2014, but it didn’t take long for the honeymoon to end. Skyrocketing electricity prices, fatigue with the Liberal brand after 15 years in power, and the usual scandals that cling to governments like barnacles all combined to relegate the Liberals to the basement of popularity. And that’s where they’ve stayed — until now.

The combination of the Liberals doing some things right and the Progressive Conservatives doing a whole lot of things wrong has put the red team back in the game. After three straight years of the PCs being Ontarians’ most popular choice, recent events have shaken up the state of play.

The latest Innovative Research Group survey has the Liberals at 30 per cent support, the governing Tories at 26 per cent, and the official opposition New Democrats at 23 per cent.

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The poll is the latest of several to confirm that the PCs are listing badly, the Liberals are gaining traction, and the NDP is capturing no more than its usual base of support.

It’s no mystery why the Tories are sinking, and we won’t waste your time recapping the extraordinary events of the past week. If you missed it all, just Google “Ontario parks and policing.”  What’s unusual is that under normal circumstances, if the government of the day is in trouble, people start kicking the tires on the official opposition to see whether it’s a viable alternative. That seems not to be happening for the NDP. For a bunch of reasons, disaffected Ontarians are parking their support with the Liberals at the moment, despite having massively rejected them less than three years ago.

It’s a curious development. The NDP has focused on all the issues you’d expect an opposition to highlight: a lack of paid sick days, a chaotic approach to school openings and closures, confusion around vaccine rollout, and more. Party leader Andrea Horwath is in the legislature and has been holding the government to account during question period. She’s on television pretty much every day, holding news conferences and suggesting policy alternatives. And the Innovative Research Group poll shows her only three points behind Doug Ford as the leader Ontarians think would make the best premier.

And yet, the NDP has dropped 10 points since the last election, residing for the moment in its traditional third-place spot — despite being only 23 seats short of forming a majority government of its own.

The Liberals, conversely, have a leader who doesn’t have a seat in the legislature, who’s spent the past year unable to campaign normally because of the pandemic, and who’s had to fundraise and do candidate searches on Zoom, from the discomfort of his dining-room table. Not only that, but with only eight seats, the Liberals aren’t an officially constituted party at Queen’s Park and therefore miss out on millions of dollars they could use to hire more staff and do better research on their opponents.

In addition, leader Steven Del Duca’s personal polling numbers aren’t very good. He’s 10 points behind Ford and seven behind Horwath on the question of who’d make the better premier.

Having said that, Del Duca does have some things going for him. The public now seems prepared to let the provincial Liberals out of the penalty box, and who knows how much of the federal Liberals’ popularity (they’re eight points up on the Conservatives) is shining on their provincial cousins.

Beyond that, Del Duca has improved. Although he’s not able to garner support in crowds, his daily Zoom news conferences (at the dining-room table) convey the impression of an experienced politician who’s calm and serious (he had two senior cabinet jobs in Wynne’s government).

He’s picked up an old trick from former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, who, while in opposition, often reminded people that he wanted to be premier. The theory was: keep saying it often enough, and the public will also entertain the idea, even if they’re not quite sold on it yet.

“I’m running to be premier of Ontario,” Del Duca said during last Friday’s Zoom. “Doug Ford is out of gas and in over his head. People have lost faith in him.”

Del Duca has none of Ford’s populist brio. While he’s a competent speaker and genuinely seems to enjoy people, he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not the most charismatic guy out there. He has a monotone way of speaking, wears thick black horn-rimmed glasses, and sports a Yul Brynner look (totally bald, for those of you too young to remember The King and I). It’s not a look any previous Ontario premier has had.

But unlike the current premier or opposition leader, Del Duca would bring a lot of political experience to the premier’s office, which may be why the public is mulling over his credentials at the moment.

“Steven Del Duca, this is your moment,” said political pundit Scott Reid on last week’s Herle Burly podcast. “Opposition leaders in their wildest dreams have an opportunity to see a premier performing this poorly, to be judged this unworthy, this widely. You’ve got this guy on the canvas. Stand in the middle of the ring with your gloves on. There’s been enough good Ford. There hasn’t been enough good Steve.

“Now is your moment. Get out there,” Reid offered.

Before Liberals get too giddy, let’s remember: there’s still more than 13 months before the next election. That’s a lot of time for the current government to fix what it’s botched. And in the nearly 154-year history of Ontario in Canada, only three governments have failed to win a second term. Going from third place to first in one election is even rarer; that’s happened only twice (Howard Ferguson in 1923, Mike Harris in 1995).

Watching Del Duca navigate these strong historic currents will be one of the more fascinating stories to watch between now and June 2, 2022, the next grand consultation with the people of Ontario.

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