The Progressive Conservatives' not-so-secret weapon

By Steve Paikin - Published on July 20, 2017
a screenshot of a Facebook page
Ontario Proud is less concerned about who Ontarians will vote for than who they will vote against.

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It’s one of the oddities of Ontario politics that among the Liberal party’s most helpful means of ensuring its last four consecutive election wins has been a group that technically has nothing to do with the Liberal party.

For a decade, the Working Families coalition has represented a group of public- and private-sector unions that never explicitly said “vote Liberal” in any of its millions of dollars’ worth of election-time advertising. But it sure did say “don’t vote Progressive Conservative,” no doubt depressing the Tory vote and helping the Liberals stay in power since 2003.

Because Working Families didn’t have an official affiliation with the Liberals, their expenditures were never included in the Liberal election spending totals, even though you could argue the coalition and the Grits essentially had the same aim.

If you’re on the progressive side of the political spectrum, you marvelled at the election expenses legal loophole the coalition had discovered (whose legality was confirmed five years ago by the Ontario Court of Appeal).  However, if you’re on the conservative side of the spectrum, chances are you’ve been appalled at what has felt like an uneven playing field. Former PC leader Tim Hudak, who led his party through two general elections, often bemoaned the fact that there was no counterbalance to the onslaught of political ads that successfully demonized him. 

For some reason, conservatives have never been able to create their own equivalent of the Working Families coalition. The thinking is, businesses amenable to the PC platform are too afraid to jeopardize their contracts or relationships with government by supporting an entity opposing the Liberals.

But that may be on the verge of changing.

A new political action group called Ontario Proud sprung up a year and a half ago, and like its progressive counterpart, its message isn’t focused on getting a particular party elected. But the group sure is clear that it wants one party in particular defeated.

“Ontario Proud is a people powered organization dedicated to holding Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government accountable for their scandal plagued governance and unaffordable hydro rates,” the group’s website says.

At the moment, the group’s focus is online. Its Facebook page has about 180,000 “likes,” it claims an email distribution list of nearly 80,000 supporters, and it has a presence on YouTube and Twitter. It describes itself as “the most popular and engaged Facebook page in Ontario politics.”

It seems to be part of a family of similarly right-leaning groups such as B.C. Proud, Alberta Proud, Saskatchewan Proud, and Toronto Proud. The relationship and the degree of coordination between these sites isn’t clear to me, but the groups do sometimes share one another’s Facebook posts.

Ontario Proud has so far mostly been pushing anti-Wynne messages on social media. This one has a rather cheesy and unprofessional look and sound to it:

But another more recent and more professional-looking ad has captured a lot of attention too. The Ontario Proud Facebook page boasted it had captured almost 2 million views by July 14.

Ontario Proud is promising in the months ahead to add an offline component to its mission as well, including protests and phone campaigns. And it’s caught the attention of at least one cabinet minister, Toronto’s Glen Murray, who engaged with the site on Twitter:

Ontario Proud tweet

Ontario Proud tweet

There’s always a danger in trying to equate political phenomena in other countries with what’s happening in Canada. Canadians at the moment seem quite uninterested in giving life to the kind populist movements that have appeared in many European countries, and that have catapulted Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.

But inevitable questions will be asked about Ontario Proud and how closely it hopes to mirror the Trump phenomenon that harnessed voter anger, often by unconventional means, including through Twitter.

While Ontario Proud does love to mock Wynne with some of its social media content…

Ontario Proud tweet

Ontario Proud tweet

… it has so far been careful to avoid some of the truly inflammatory language Trump continues to indulge in. However, a number of people have crossed the line on the group’s social media sites and subsequently been called out for making misogynistic comments.

The group seems to be mindful of avoiding over-the-top personal attacks, since it appears to make a concerted effort to scrub all inappropriate comments about Wynne from its site.

As Ontario counts down to the June 2018 election, it will surely be intriguing to see how influential Ontario Proud becomes.

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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