To win more votes in Ontario, Erin O’Toole should study Doug Ford's past and present

OPINION: The federal Tories are arguing over where to go next. They should look to their provincial counterparts for a roadmap
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 12, 2021
(Left) Federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole (Adrian Wyld/CP); Ontario premier Doug Ford. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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The federal Conservative party will sit once more in the opposition benches in Parliament whenever it is called back into session, and it’ll stay there until at least after the next election, whenever that’s called. With the disappointing results of the 2021 contest — nearly identical to those from 2019 — there’s dissent within Conservative ranks over leader Erin O’Toole’s performance. There are those, for example, who’d like to see him replaced with a whole new leader, as Andrew Scheer was replaced after 2019.

Some of the people in that camp are currently on the periphery of the party and hope a new leader might give them a chance to get closer to power. Then there’s the usual grumbling that happens after any election. But there’s one specific argument being made in Conservative circles that’s relevant to provincial politics: that O’Toole’s leadership was in part premised on the idea that he would do better in Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area, and he failed to do so. Some extend the argument further, saying that O’Toole tried to moderate the party’s platform too much and that a more aggressive form of conservative politics would have offered voters a clearer choice.

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There are always 10,000 things that could have gone differently in any election, and any reasonable observer could probably make a strong argument that at least 9,000 of them could have been decisive. And let’s not forget the pandemic and how it scrambled politics this year — something that won’t repeat in the next federal election. But it's worth thinking about the provincial Tories' 15 long years out of power and what that experience could teach their federal cousins about winning in this province and breaking up a seeming Liberal monopoly in Ontario's cities.

One thread that runs through the 2007, 2011, and 2014 Ontario elections — where the Liberals held off Tory challenges under both Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne — is that it’s not terribly difficult to spook Ontario voters about a conservative secret agenda. Sometimes, of course, the agenda isn’t terribly secret: both John Tory in 2007 and Tim Hudak in 2014 were pilloried for platform planks (on school funding and cuts to public-sector jobs, respectively) that were out in the open.

Conservatives will no doubt say that the content of their platforms is irrelevant; the Liberals excel at attack ads and will always find some detail, no matter how obscure or arcane, to blow up into something that might terrify voters.

But the 2018 election — which saw the Tories finally win back power in Ontario — shows otherwise. The Doug Ford campaign (and before it, the substantial pre-election work done by Patrick Brown in recruiting star candidates and developing a platform) were singularly focused on not alarming voters about the prospect of a Tory government. The Tories went so far as to stop talking about Ford entirely at one point in the campaign, emphasizing instead the cabinet-in-waiting made up of (relative) professionals in the PC party.

The Liberals had little enough to attack in the 2018 Tory platform and instead expended enormous amounts of time and money attacking Ford personally over his substantial history of saying awful things when microphones were nearby. It didn’t work, because, by 2018, nobody needed to be told that Ford periodically said awful things; it was simply priced into his political brand.

This capsule history of Ontario politics isn’t kind to the notion that what Ontario voters secretly desire most of all is an unapologetic conservative to lead them to the promised land. And what has followed since 2018 provides even more contrary evidence: with the election behind them, the Tories used the 2019 budget to try to bring their own brand of cost-cutting to the provincial budget, and it was so terribly unpopular that Ford fired his first finance minister, Vic Fedeli, and then spent much of the following year in various forms of hiding, seemingly in an attempt to boost Scheer’s chances in the 2019 election.

The Tories have now basically accepted that government spending will continue to grow for at least the next decade — a long way from the dream of going hammer-and-tong after public profligacy. Ford, far from promising voters an era of austerity and budget-balancing after 2022, is running for re-election telling people he’s a guy who likes to say yes. 

Conservative diehards might tell themselves that 2018 was an easy win for their party: the Liberals had so exhausted the patience of Ontario voters that it would have been hard for the Tories not to win. Indeed, as an observer, I might agree. But political operatives are supposed to believe that what they do matters, and it’s nihilistic for them to argue that what worked for the Tories in ending 15 years of Liberal rule didn’t matter. If they want to dismiss the actual choices that Tories made in the years between 2014 and 2018, the other implication is that the only thing O’Toole can do is to wait until Justin Trudeau similarly exhausts Canadians’ patience — something that might not happen before the next election.

If you take recent Ontario political history seriously, there’s a strong case that the federal Conservatives should exercise moderation and focus on pocketbook issues, signalling a form of centrist accommodation whenever they can. Trying to re-run the Common Sense Revolution from 1995 doesn’t work here anymore. 

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