There is a middling chance that Ontario voters will be going to the polls twice in 2021.
The more likely one is a federal election. As suggested in last week’s column, Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government will soon be living on borrowed time.
Minority governments are relatively common in Canada, with 14 of them at the federal level since Confederation, but most don’t hang around long – an average of 479 days. Today is the current government’s 434th day. If it lasts until Oct. 21, it will join just five others that made it to the two-year mark.
(To digress – a trivia question. What prime minister led the shortest-lived minority government in Canadian history? Nope, not Joe Clark. Although it seemed but the blink of an eye, his Conservatives held office for 198 days in 1979-1980. Our lump of coal goes to an earlier Conservative, Arthur Meighen, whose second stint as PM lasted a mere three days before his minority government was swallowed up by the King-Byng crisis of 1926.)
These days, with Parliament on Christmas recess, Ottawa is bubbling with speculation about a spring election, speculation that was energized when the Liberals posted a call for candidates on the party website last week.
Yet the odds remain against a spring election. There are two reasons. First, the Conservatives have lost their ardour for an election any time soon. When Parliament resumed in September, they were effectively tied with the Liberals in the polls. They have been bleeding support ever since. Last week’s Nanos Research survey showed the Liberal lead widening to 12 points. Some Conservatives must be wondering why they bothered to replace Andrew Scheer with Erin O’Toole.
The second reason is the Prime Minister’s insistent messaging. Although he would dearly love to get his majority back, Trudeau has made it abundantly clear that bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control must have absolute priority for the government and the country. An attempt to parlay pandemic-inflated popularity into a parliamentary majority by calling an election before victory over COVID has been achieved would be seen to be playing politics with the public interest in the midst of a national crisis. It would hand the opposition parties what they sorely need: a legitimate election issue. The bottom line: no election until lockdowns and vaccinations have flattened the curve and medical experts have issued an all-clear. That won’t happen before fall and very possibly not until 2022.
Let’s wander over to Queen’s Park. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives elected a majority government in June 2018, meaning they will enter their third year this coming summer. In the normal course, the next provincial election would be in 2022. The premier, however, may have to wrestle with himself to resist the temptation to go early, while his government’s popularity is high and the opposition weak is weak and divided.
The pandemic is central to the election calculus. If the Ford government’s handling of the COVID’s first wave was less than spectacular – too slow to react, too quick to reopen – its performance in the second wave has been worse. It’s as though it did not learn anything from the first wave. Unlike Quebec, which has made a concerted effort to improve patient safety in long-term care homes, Ontario has done precious little, and its failure is reflected in the daily infection and death rates. Ignoring the lessons of the first wave, Ford was publicly reluctant to crack down on public and social gatherings, and he dragged his feet until Boxing Day to impose a provincial lockdown to require businesses to close and most Ontarians to stay home.
Predictably, the province is registering record numbers of new COVID cases virtually every day, and it may be weeks before the curve begins to bend.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney’s hands-off response to the pandemic – putting the right of individuals to do whatever they wished above the need for provincial measures to keep everyone safe – drove public support for his United Conservative party into the depths of the opinion polls. If there were a provincial election today, the NDP’s Rachel Notley would be back as premier.
Amazingly – incredibly – the opposite phenomenon has occurred in Ontario. As the COVID curve has climbed and criticism of the Ford government has mounted, popular support for Conservatives has increased.
The party won its majority with 41 per cent of the vote in 2018 – good for 76 of the 124 seats in the Ontario Legislature. On Dec. 10, the poll aggregator 338Canada.com, which tallies the findings of published polls, put PC support at 45 per cent, with the rest divided equally between the Liberals and NDP, with a small slice for the Greens. What would these numbers mean in terms of seats? According to 338Canada, the Conservatives had a 100 per cent chance of winning another majority on Dec. 10, with a projected 88 seats.
Ford has nowhere to go but down and, as long as the party’s numbers remain high, he will be under pressure to call a snap election in 2021. The temptation seems likely to grow. But maybe couple of lurking issues will let the air out of his balloon. More on that another day.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].