Happy election year, Ontario!
The next scheduled election is 365 days away — and for the next year, that, more than anything, will be the one filter through which provincial current affairs are analyzed, spun, and understood. For critics of the Liberal government it’s a countdown to their chance at unseating a party that will have been in power for nearly 15 years. For the Liberals, it’s their chance to try and drag their approval ratings up out of the basement they’ve languished in for the last two years.
And yet some days, it’s hard to choose which party is in the best, or for that matter worst, position to actually form the next government.
The Progressive Conservatives
The Tories under Patrick Brown have maintained an impressive lead in most opinion polls since even before he became leader, in May 2015. The party is flush, and raised an impressive $16 million last year before new, stricter fundraising rules came into effect. The PCs have begun to put out ads introducing Brown to Ontario’s voters as an open, tolerant leader of a different kind of conservative party.
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It is worth pausing on that for a moment: Two years into the job, most Ontarians still don't feel like they know Brown or what he believes. The good news is that the Liberals haven’t defined him in voters’ minds yet; the bad news is, neither have the Tories. But that's also changed slowly over the last year, as Brown has made inclusion part of his stump speech.
With money and momentum, the party is attracting candidates across the province who will, they hope, soon allow them to present a slate of potential representatives that looks a bit more like the rest of the population than the current very-male, very-white Tory caucus. But the same prospect of victory that has Brown’s party daring to hope has its own problems: namely, bruising fights for riding nominations as people rush to join the bandwagon. The party has hired accounting firm PwC (aka PriceWaterhouseCoopers) to ensure future nominations run more smoothly, but summarily ended appeals of past nominations this weekend by having Brown simply appoint candidates.
Voters aren’t likely to have noticed or cared about the Tory riding fights — they're nearly the definition of inside baseball. A bit more public is the defection or expulsion (depending on who you believe) of Jack MacLaren, the MPP for Carleton-Mississippi Mills. MacLaren was already on thin ice with the leader’s office for prior outbursts, and is now the lone MPP for the more conservative Trillium Party.
In the Liberals’ wildest dreams, MacLaren's departure is the start of a broader schism in the PC party between pragmatic moderates and social conservatives — and Brown has been caught in the middle of some tensions between these factions within his party. But in reality, the effect of MacLaren's break with the Tories is likely to be confined to his own riding, where he might split the vote and get a Liberal elected.
So far Brown has offered voters relatively little in terms of policy specifics — part of a calculated strategy, and something that’s unlikely to change until at least the party’s policy convention in November. Even then, policies approved by the party membership are likely to be purposefully vague, to avoid giving the Liberals anything to either attack or, less plausibly, adopt as their own.
The Grits have a straightforward plan for the next year: keep being in government, and doing all the things being in government allows.
At minimum, that means another budget cycle wherein Premier Kathleen Wynne will get to announce priorities for the coming year, potentially including another big-ticket expansion of social spending. This year's budget included pharmacare for people under 25, while 2016 saw the promise of free tuition for university and college for most students. The chance to announce another major program along those lines in the 2018 budget, just months before an election, is simply too valuable to pass up — and naked partisan interests aside, Wynne still values the policy-making part of the job, not just the political sport.
The privilege of government is about the only thing the Liberals do have going for them at the moment. The premier’s personal popularity lags substantially behind the party’s (the opposite was true when she led them to a narrow win in 2014); the party is lagging behind the Tories on fundraising; and four Liberal staffers will stand trial in two different cases starting in the fall. It’s obviously the kind of display no government wants to see so close to an election, but by the same token the Liberals don’t expect the trials to reveal anything the public doesn’t already know — they're hoping the cost of bad PR is, for better or worse, baked in already.
One big outstanding question is whether the Liberals have actually put the electricity file to bed. The party clearly hopes that as voters see their hydro bills lower over the summer —customers are supposed to see a 17 per cent cut starting July 1, following on the 8 per cent HST cut from this past January — their temperatures will also come down. It may not be so simple, though: one Tory strategist who spoke with TVO.org anonymously suggested the Sault Ste. Marie by-election last week showed the opposite: every voter who heard the Liberals promise of lower hydro bills was simply reminded how they got so high in the first place.
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The New Democratic Party
The NDP has some advantages the Liberals and Tories lack, specifically in its leader. For starters, Andrea Horwath is consistently rated as the most popular of the three leaders. She's also better known than one opponent — voters have seen her in two elections now, unlike the relatively new Brown — and more trusted than Wynne; for a short period this spring the NDP was actually outpolling the Liberals.
The question is whether the party can capitalize on Horwath’s advantages. The Liberals have tried to seize some of the NDP’s key priorities, such as pharmacare and more union-friendly labour laws, potentially attracting “NDP voters who are only ever looking for a reason not to vote for us,” as one party insider described it. The calculus is simple: why stick with the NDP when the Grits are offering the same policy, and historically stand a better chance of forming government? In particular, Toronto voters who bolted from the NDP to the Liberals in 2014 may decide to do so again.
So if there’s an NDP road to victory it’s not going to be paved with policy promises alone, though Horwath, like Wynne, is hoping to show a more energetically progressive side in this election than the last. Rather, the NDP hopes to capitalize on distrust of the Liberals, and to appeal to those who feel betrayed by Wynne’s budget-balancing choices, like privatizing Hydro One after running as a province-builder in 2014. They can’t stop the Liberals from masquerading (in their eyes) as progressive, but they can remind voters that they’ve seen this trick before.
If “Who do you want to be the premier?” is the first question voters will be asked next June, “Who do you think is on your side?” is the one the NDP hope comes immediately after. They believe Horwath’s years of hammering the Liberals on pocketbook issues will resonate with voters — and issues like the NDP’s pharmacare plan (distinct from and announced prior to the Liberals') are part of making the affirmative case for Horwath as more than just one of Wynne’s harshest critics.
The biggest problem for the NDP will be money: they are nearly certain to be badly outspent by both the Liberals and Tories. The campaign finance rules brought in by the Liberals this year ban corporate and union donations, and the lack of the latter will hurt.
The NDP and PCs will to some extent rise and fall together. The Tories will benefit if the New Democrats can win Liberal-held seats in Toronto and northern Ontario: in their books, an Ontario repeat of the 2011 federal “Orange Wave,” in which the NDP reduced the Liberals to third place — and secured then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s majority — would be entirely fine. The NDP, for its part, needs Brown to not spook voters back into the Liberal camp. Each party is counting on the other to be attractive enough to draw support away from the Liberals, or failing that, strong enough to attack them effectively.
All of these, of course, are simply plans as they stand one year out from an election, and a lot can happen in that period of time. This time last year, for instance, the province's books weren't balanced, the government wasn't introducing new programs that cost half a billion dollars each, and it wasn't acknowledging NDP demands to remove the HST from electricity bills. Every one of those has reversed now. A year is a very, very long time in politics and nobody should be surprised if things go off the rails one more time — or many — before voting day.