The road to Kathleen Wynne’s 2014 election win was not easy. The previous year — her first in power after succeeding Dalton McGuinty — had given her five byelections to contest, of which the Liberals lost three. The gas-plants scandal had flared up again. A member of Wynne’s transition team was charged with the distribution of child pornography. And, on top of all that, Ontario’s economy was struggling.
Despite the inauspicious start to her premiership, Wynne still won the election. The fact is, while political observers like to obsess over rough patches like the year-long one she faced, there’s little evidence such spells register with voters.
That should come as a relief to Premier Doug Ford, who’s facing his own rough patch, the first since his Progressive Conservatives won the provincial election back in June. Last Friday, after unveiling his new “Open for Business” signs at the Sarnia border crossing, Minister for Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade Jim Wilson resigned to deal with unspecified “addiction issues.”
Or so the government said. But on Monday, Global News reported that Wilson had, in fact, been forced to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct. That story appeared following a cabinet shuffle in which Michael Tibollo, minister for correctional services and community safety, was demoted — presumably because the Globe and Mail and Queen’s Park Briefing had just reported on his involvement in a Ponzi scheme in the late 1990s. And then a top staffer from Ford’s office resigned, also over sexual-misconduct allegations.
No government would call that a good day. Worse for the Tories is that whatever honeymoon period they might have enjoyed with voters is over: a poll from Innovative Research shows the PCs in the low 30s, nearly tied with the leaderless Liberals — and it was published before Monday’s unpleasantness.
There’s no guarantee that these doldrums will last forever: just ask the Liberals how many times columnists and pollsters wrote their obituaries over 15 years in government. In the next few months, the Tories have some major announcements coming that could turn things around. A review of the province’s social-assistance system is due later this week. Next week, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli will release the fall economic statement, in which the Tories will get a chance to state how they plan to fix Ontario’s budget deficit. The party is also planning to make some big moves on the housing and transit files. There’s plenty of opportunity for this government to make real, positive change in people’s lives and revive its popularity.
One thing the Tories would do well to acknowledge is that the fights they’ve been picking with Ottawa aren’t doing much to help with the latter. The federal Liberal carbon tax isn’t as widely disliked as Ford seems to think: an Abacus Data poll from last weekend suggests that there’s substantial support for the carbon-tax-with-a-refund plan across Canada — and particularly in Ontario.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Ontario voters have a long history of sending different parties to Queen’s Park and Ottawa — and there’s already evidence that Ford is hurting his federal cousins: the federal Liberals’ poll numbers began to recover just as the new PC government cancelled green-energy contracts and cut the size of Toronto city council. It’s possible that voters in Ontario — the most populous and seat-rich province in the country — will respond to what’s coming out of Queen’s Park by giving Trudeau a second chance.
What if Trudeau’s Liberals win next year’s election despite Ford’s efforts to help Andrew Scheer? What happens if Ford is seen to have dragged the federal Tories down? What happens if the provincial government’s current polling slump doesn’t turn around?
When Wynne and the Liberals faced a long spell of bad numbers, there were calls for the premier to resign and be replaced with someone new. The problem was that the fundamental question — replace her with whom? — never had a good answer. But that’s not always the case in politics.
At the start of 2018, Ford was an unpopular choice for PC leader. He was an unpopular choice for premier (although he did lead his party to a sizeable majority). And he didn’t have deep roots in the party. His serious rivals for the leadership are now cabinet ministers, as are several other influential Tories. That means that when party members start whispering about the need for change at the top, a number of obvious candidates will be right there. If Ford can’t pull the PCs out of their current rut, his biggest worry may not turn out to be his opponents across the aisle at Queen’s Park or in Ottawa — it’ll be people from within his own party.
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