There’s an air of unreality about Ontario politics these days.
At Queen’s Park, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are pretending it is business as usual. A new session of the Legislature begins at noon on Monday with the reading of the Speech from Throne, and Finance Minister Charles Sousa will follow with his 2018 budget on March 28.
It’s make-believe. A general election campaign is already in full swing. It began on March 10, when Doug Ford was declared the new leader of the opposition Progressive Conservative party. And although the election will not end officially until June 7, it may already be over.
There is a sense in the political community, reinforced by a new wave of opinion polls, that the PCs are destined to win and that Doug Ford, until now best known as the brother of Rob Ford, the late mayor of Toronto, will be the next premier of Ontario – with a majority government within his reach.
If so, the Tories will accomplish it by breaching the Liberal stronghold in the city of Toronto, making deep inroads in the GTA and sweeping Liberals aside in southwestern Ontario. No Liberal or NDP seat in Brantford, Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge or environs will be safe. The trend in some polls suggests the Liberals could end up in third place, behind Andrea Horwath and the NDP.
How could this have happened? The PCs were a party in chaos. Since January it lost its leader amid allegations of sexual misconduct, rigged nominations and misuse of party funds; it made a hash of the balloting that gave Ford the leadership instead of Christine Elliott. It permitted the new leader to tear up the platform that the membership had approved only months earlier, as he moved the party away from the centre to a new location somewhere on the populist right.
Among Ontario Tories, a little loathing of Kathleen Wynne has gone a very long way, and they are counting on that loathing to carry them into power.
Is there nothing Wynne can do?
I wouldn’t want to bet the farm, or even the outhouse, on this, but maybe there is a path to survival.
The Liberals need to change their strategy. To date, Wynne has been trying to accentuate the positive, emphasizing all the good, positive things that Liberals represent. It doesn’t work. The voters are not listening. They see and hear a party that has been in office too long – 15 years – and has been in and out of trouble for most of that time, through two leaders and four provincial elections. It is time for change.
Wynne cannot meet the demand for change by being positive or by defending the Liberal record. Her only hope is to attack where her opponent is vulnerable. The Tories are most vulnerable in two places. Those are the leader himself and the policies he represents.
Most voters still don’t know Ford and, among those who do, more people disapprove than approve of him. Starting with that, Wynne can claim that Ford knows nothing about provincial politics and offers little evidence that he cares to learn. Like Donald Trump, he cannot deal with complexity. He likes his ideas simple, and he doesn’t want more than five of them cluttering up his campaign.
He rejects a carbon tax because he doesn’t believe in the reality of climate change. He rejects sex education in the schools, not because he has a better idea, but because he has no idea at all. He hypocritically professes to despise “elites,” although his family wealth makes him one of them. Not least, his political brain is locked in 19th century, making him a dangerous person to trust with leadership in the 21st century.
Wynne can argue this case, but to make it effective she will need help from Ford himself – perhaps a small temper tantrum, some intemperate statements or a big mistake. After all, Ontario Tories have been known to blow elections before.