Previewing Party Narratives in Ontario

Ontario’s next election will be held on June 2, 2022. There are no limits on spending by parties on advertising before November 2 so we are now seeing the first round of the ad war. The parties are previewing their narratives for the campaign that will officially begin next May.

Ontario has a competitive three-party system, in which the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP in recent years have all been either the government or the official opposition. This makes the dynamics of campaigning more complicated than in a system in which there are only two major parties.

Doug the Builder

Doug Ford’s approval rating was 40 percent when he took office in June 2018. It fell to 25 percent by fall 2019, rebounded to over 60 percent in June 2020 after the first wave of pandemic receded, and has fallen back to 40 percent, where it now appears to have stabilized. This suggests that the Conservatives have a reasonable chance of winning another majority with approximately 40 percent of the popular vote. And the Conservatives may also be helped by the well-known propensity of Ontario voters to reject the federal government’s Ontario compadres.

The Conservatives’ ads can be seen on the Facebook ad library. “The party that says yes” is their narrative about themselves and Doug Ford. Doug Ford will promote himself as a builder of major projects that are now in the works – Highway 413, the Ontario Line, and the redevelopment of Ontario Place – as well as lots of housing.

Thanks a Bunch, Jason; Love ya’, Scott

Covid – 19, of course, is the wild card. The fourth wave is receding in Ontario, and the Conservatives are hoping there won’t be a fifth between now and Election Day. Ford’s recent announcement of plans to stop requiring people to show vaccine status in early January and to stop requiring masking in late March would be consistent with a campaign narrative that the Ford Government has handled the pandemic effectively. Voters compare performance across jurisdictions, and Ontarians are aware of the sky-high infection rates, cancellation of elective surgeries, and overflowing ICUs in Alberta and Saskatchewan, two provinces where conservative premiers (Jason Kenny and Scott Moe) failed to convince enough of their constituents to get vaccinated and unduly relaxed distancing last summer.

Madame No and Rasputin

The Conservatives have unleashed attack ads on NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. If the Conservatives are the party of yes, then the NDP is the party of no, the party opposed to housing and highways and supporting more red tape and higher taxes.

The Conservatives’ attack on Steven Del Duca is guilt-by-association as they hold him responsible for all the failings of the Wynne Government. Though Del Duca held two middling portfolios, Transportation and Economic Development (rather than major ones like Health or Education), he is depicted by the Conservatives as a virtual Rasputin.

Guilt by association with the despised leader of a defeated government is a well-known political tactic that the Ontario Liberals used vis-à-vis Mike Harris in the elections of 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2014 and the federal Liberals used vis-à-vis Stephen Harper in the elections of 2019 and 2021.

Andrea the Fighter

The NDP has also posted ads, which were discussed in a recent article in The Toronto Star. Leader Andrea Horwath is portrayed as a fighter who is “fierce, loyal, optimistic” and “who knows who she is and who we are,” the “we” defined as workers, families, seniors, and children. The NDP has also been running attack ads, depicting Doug Ford has “here for his [wealthy] buddies, not for you” and Steve Del Duca as Kathleen Wynne’s right-hand man and “back for power, not for you.” The latter are almost identical to the Conservatives’ attacks on Del Duca. Del Duca is not very well known among voters, so the Conservatives and NDP are attempting to define him before he defines himself, a strategy the federal Conservatives employed with maximum impact when they swiftboated Michael Ignatieff as soon as he became Liberal leader in 2009.

A New Guy with New Ideas

The Liberals, with much less money in the bank, have not been running moving-image ads on mainstream media, but rather have put up posters on Facebook, which link to their own website. These can be seen on Facebook’s ad library. The Liberals are not attacking the other two parties, rather they are calling attention to planks in their own platform such as requiring vaccinations for front-line workers in health and education, introducing ranked-ballot voting at the provincial level, reinstating the Wynne Government’s basic income pilot project (cancelled by the Ford Government in midstream), and piloting a four-day workweek.

Putting it all Together

How will the three parties’ strategies interact during the campaign next year? The Conservatives are using a traditional incumbent’s strategy of portraying themselves as optimistic and forward-looking, while attacking both major opposition parties. The NDP is now firmly in second place, holding 40 seats compared to the Liberals’ 7. Their attack on the Liberals is intended to prevent the Liberals from bouncing back and to convince the 60 percent of Ontario voters who oppose the Conservatives to vote strategically for the NDP, as the party that has the greatest chance of defeating the Conservatives. (This of course is the traditional strategy of the federal Liberals, deployed with great effectiveness in the 2019 and 2021 elections.)

It appears the Liberals have decided that there is nothing to be gained by attempting to refute both the Conservatives’ and the NDP’s. Rather, the Liberals appear to be copying the strategy of the federal Liberals when they were in a comparable position in 2015: let the NDP do the heavy lifting of attacking the Conservatives, while promoting themselves as the party of new ideas and “sunny ways.”

Too Much Sun, Not Enough Rain

But there is an important implication of the Liberals’ disinclination to attack the Conservatives. In my view, the NDP’s attack on Ford as in the pocket of his rich buddies touches only the tip of an iceberg of benighted public policy and maladroit governance. A comprehensive attack on the Conservatives should include: their hesitant and reluctant response to the pandemic, resulting in unnecessary deaths; their disastrous environmental record, including the nugatory opposition to the federal government’s carbon price and the promotion of a highway that will destroy farmland and greenbelt to save a few seconds for motorists; their assault on democracy through repeated use of the notwithstanding clause; and their consistent opposition to the interests of workers, as exemplified by their reduction of the minimum wage.

To defeat the Conservatives, it is essential to make clear how bad their record has been. The problem with a three-party system is that both opposition parties, each not wanting to appear too negative and hoping that the other will do the dirty work, will pull their punches, so that an incompetent incumbent government is not held responsible for its failings. In a two-party system, that doesn’t happen. At least the Greens, Ontario’s fourth party, can be expected to highlight the Conservatives’ egregious environmental record. But stronger and more resonant attacks will be needed to defeat the Conservatives.


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