Three big questions a year out from the next Ontario election

OPINION: At this point, it’s anyone’s guess who the next premier will be. But these issues will almost certainly shape the race in coming months
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 04, 2021
The next provincial election is set to be held on June 2, 2022. (Chris Donovan/CP)

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Assuming Ontario’s current law holds, the next provincial general election is now less than a year away — June 2, 2022. While we’re lucky not to have the years-long campaigns for presidential nominees that the Americans endure, Ontario’s fixed-election-date law does mean that, inevitably, the day-to-day affairs of provincial politics will slowly but surely be overtaken by election calculation. All MPPs will spend the summer in their ridings, no doubt trying to restart the summer BBQ fundraising circuit that COVID-19 put a stop to. But by the time they return to the legislature in September, every barb in question period and every private member’s bill that goes up for a vote will carry at least some importance for election day.

The current polls for Ontario show the Tories and the Liberals neck-and-neck for the lead, but neither party should be terribly confident that, if voters were asked to mark a box on a ballot today, they’d come out on top; there’s too much noise and not enough signal right now. But these issues will likely shape the race as we get closer to election day.

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How much will the pandemic even matter?

This might seem a silly — or even offensive — question to ask while people are still dying in the province’s intensive-care beds, but it’s entirely possible that the Progressive Conservative party’s handling of the pandemic will be a secondary or even tertiary issue for voters by the time June 2022 rolls around. 

If vaccines continue to work as well as they have been, if people can have a reasonably normal summer and a proper fall and Christmas without the threat of COVID-19 looming over them, it’s entirely possible that people will not be terribly interested in relitigating the management of the pandemic. 

Instead, expect to see the three largest parties competing for who has the most attractive vision of the post-pandemic world to present to voters. Issues like schools, long-term care, and hospitals are inevitably going to be debated in the context of the pandemic we’re emerging from, but don’t expect NDP leader Andrea Horwath or Liberal leader Steven Del Duca to make the bungling of the province’s third wave a core part of their campaigns against the government.

Can a government be re-elected with both the teachers and the doctors angry at the same time?

None of the above is to say that some specific groups won’t have a long memory about the last 15 months, what the government did and didn’t do, and who’s to blame for the thousands of dead Ontarians. It’s notable, on that point, that 2021 is on track to be nearly as deadly, COVID-wise, as 2020 was: 4,581 people died of COVID-19 in this province by December 31, 2020, and 4,239 have died since January 1, 2021. 

The Tories were all but certainly always going to have to run for re-election with the hostility of the education-workers’ unions baked into their plans; it’s as close to a given in Ontario politics as there is. What might cause them some problems they didn’t anticipate is that the pandemic has created a very vocal, public cohort of doctors across the province who have been extremely critical of the government’s policies. Many of those doctors will no doubt be grateful to retire from the spotlight as the pandemic fades — but not all.

Even if the organized bodies representing doctors in the province (particularly the Ontario Medical Association) stay above the fray, it’s going to cause headaches for the PCs when every word they say in public about health care is met with a barrage of criticism from faces the public has become very familiar with over the past year. Health care and education are literally the two most important jobs the provincial government handles, the two biggest slices of the government’s budget, and the two areas voters are extremely sensitive to governments messing up. Governments of both parties have won re-election with the teachers angry at them or the doctors angry at them, but forming government in the face of antipathy from both is a tall order.

Which opposition will voters pick?

One thing the Tories have going their way right now is that skeptical voters haven’t yet decided which opposition party they’d like to see replace Doug Ford’s PC party in the government benches at the legislature. 

Polls right now show that Ford could remain premier simply because the Liberal and NDP vote shares are cannibalizing each other in competitive ridings all over the province. And it’s simply the math of provincial politics that, if the Liberals do restore themselves to official party status, it will be because they’ve taken seats away primarily from the NDP, leaving the Tories relatively unscathed. 

But that’s what the polls show today, and those polls won’t stay still. Progressive voters in Ontario are extremely sensitive to the possibility of conservative parties winning when the left splits its vote, and that’s in part why the Ontario Liberals succeeded so consistently from 2003 to 2014 — and also why progressives were willing to abandon the sinking Liberal ship in 2018 (provincially) and in 2011 (federally), handing the NDP historic successes even if it fell short of forming government. A large share of people who are currently telling pollsters they support the Liberals or NDP will be more than happy to bolt to the other party if they think it’d be the better bet to block a Tory in their riding come voting day. The margin by which that happens could very well decide who ends up making a call to the lieutenant-governor and forming the next government.

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