After Ontario Conservative Doug Ford won an increased majority of 83 seats out of a total of 123 in the June 2, 2022 election the big question is: Which Doug Ford will now show up?
Will it be the toxic and vindictive leader of the first part of his 2018-2022 term? Or, as pollster Nick Nanos put it on an election night, will we get the new Doug Ford; Uncle Doug, the inclusive pragmatist?
In his exultant election night speech Ford emphasized his new persona.
The re-elected premier said he wanted to be a leader for all and unify Ontario. To underscore his point, Ford thanked the auto-workers and unionized construction tradespeople who helped him win a handful of erstwhile NDP strongholds, mostly in the province’s industrial southwest.
Ontarians who care about public services, healthcare, and the environment shouldn’t hold their breath in hopeful anticipation.
The re-elected Conservative government will continue with its plans to limit nurses, teachers and other public and para-public sector workers to one per cent per year wage increases.
At the same time, Ford has enunciated no plans for buttressing the key human resources component of health care, apart from a $5,000 one-time bonus for nurses.
In his government’s most recent budget Ford clearly announced his negative intentions for Ontario’s starved education system. He plans to cut its already inadequate funding. Don’t expect better ventilation and smaller class sizes, in the light of the pandemic. Classes will likely, in fact, get bigger.
When it comes to Ontario’s environment, a government which reluctantly says it recognizes the reality of human-caused climate change (while stubbornly refusing to adopt any measures to combat it) will now proceed with a new $10 billion highway.
Ford argues he needs to pave over precious farmland and natural environments in the densely populated greater Toronto area in order to shorten car-commuters’ rides.
The Ontario Conservative leader has never considered increased public transit or any other less damaging options for reducing highway gridlock.
Making Ontario friendlier for automobiles has always been Doug Ford’s main motivator, as it was for his brother Rob when he was mayor of Toronto.
On the eve of the 2022 election, Ford cut the gasoline tax and made a big show of cancelling the province’s vehicle registration fee.
The latter is a regressive fiscal measure. It helps high income car owners as much as low-income ones, and, of course, does nothing for those who don’t own cars, almost all of whom are low-income.
As electoral candy those pro-car actions seem to have worked for Ford. They may have attracted the votes of some key parts of the suburban electorate.
NDP loses most votes; Liberals still in wilderness
The election was a bitter disappointment for both the New Democrats and the Liberals.
The NDP lost about 10 per cent of the popular vote and nine seats vis-à-vis its 2018 result.
New Democrats could feel some relief and take some comfort from that fact that with 31 seats the party retained official opposition status.
NDPers could not be happy with the big drop in their support. During the campaign, Ford boasted he was going after private-sector working-class voters who have traditionally supported the NDP, and there is evidence he succeeded.
The Conservatives took seats from the New Democrats in the Windsor area, in Toronto (where Doug Ford’s nephew defeated a New Democrat incumbent), and in the 905 belt around Toronto.
Ford’s folks even stole a seat from the New Democrats in northern Ontario, which has been an NDP fortress for decades (and largely remained so this time).
The NDP had held the seat for the northern Ontario town of Timmins seat for 32 years, but on election night long-time New Democratic MPP Gilles Bisson lost to the Conservative candidate (federally that riding is represented by the NDP’s Charlie Angus.)
The New Democrats and the Liberals each won a bit more than 23 per cent of the popular vote.
During the vote count, the numbers bounced around quite a bit, but, in the end, the Liberals actually won between five and six thousand more votes than the New Democrats.
The Liberal vote was, however, monstrously inefficient.
First-past-the-post gave the third party a mere nine seats. For the second election in a row the once mighty Liberals failed to win official party status, which is 12 seats.
Looking for new leaders; low turnout
Both New Democratic leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal Steven Del Duca announced their resignations on election night.
Horwath tearfully said she was bowing out with pride rather than sadness. She reminded the re-elected Conservative leader that he won his majority without the support of a majority of voters.
The big story of the election was not about who voted, but about who didn’t, close to 60 per cent of the electorate. This election had the lowest turnout of any in Ontario history.
Is it possible the media’s obsessive horserace, opinion-poll-focused coverage was at least in part responsible for the low participation rate? On election night, at least one media commentator, on CTV, suggested she thought that was the case.
Ontarians who listened to and watched news media reports throughout the campaign – telling them the results were a foregone conclusion because all opinion polls showed the Conservatives would win big again – might be forgiven for thinking it was not worth their while to vote.
Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, was the worst offender in this regard, because it has made a point, for decades, of claiming it does not do poll-driven journalism.
Officially, the CBC wants its reporters and analysts to cover issues, party platforms, and citizens’ concerns.
More than a decade ago the CBC decided to stop spending money on polls. The mot d’ordre at the time was that coverage of elections should not focus on an artificial horserace based on polling numbers. It should focus instead on the real-life problems citizens face and the solutions politicians offer.
The current generation of CBC reporters seems to have lost that memo. The CBC still does not commission its own polls, but these days it obsessively reports on other people’s polls.
Almost every CBC report during the last week or so of the election campaign started with “polls say”. Some would reference the CBC’s own “poll tracker”, which is the corporation’s fancy way of saying it had someone do a bit of grade five arithmetic and take an average of the publicly available polls.
There was extremely scant coverage on the CBC (or elsewhere in the mainstream media) of any big issues, be they health care, conditions for the elderly and disabled, the state of classroom education, the prospects for gig workers, parties’ proposals to reduce greenhouse gases, or Ontario’s relations with Indigenous communities.
Ontario has the largest Indigenous population of any province or territory in Canada, at close to 300,000, but Indigenous issues were virtually never mentioned in media coverage of the campaign.
At the CBC, Ottawa-based reporter Joanne Chianello – who regularly does a bang-up job covering city hall, but shifted her focus to the provincial scene for the campaign – was one of the few who ever focused on such issues as climate change. She was a rare exception.
Little critique of Ford from opposition
There are no doubt other reasons than shallow and irresponsible media reportage for the low turnout.
The two main opposition leaders did not inspire. Both seemed oddly reluctant to remind voters of the Ford government’s sorry record.
One Liberal activist noted that the Ford troops won the 2018 election largely by relentlessly attacking the Liberal Kathleen Wynne government. Ford’s Conservatives did not even bother to issue a platform in 2018. They relied almost exclusively on negative campaigning.
This time, the Liberal activist suggests, the opposition parties could have done the same to the Ford government. As he put it:
“So frustrating that the other parties have not been talking about Ford’s record for the past year. Could they not have done to him what he did to Kathleen Wynne? I’m not a fan of demonizing, but not talking about his terrible policies in a forceful way is unconscionable.”
An examination of the results indicates that onetime opposition party voters, especially those for the NDP, stayed home in greater numbers than Conservative voters.
In the electoral district of Brampton East, for instance, the Conservative candidate got about 12,000 votes both in 2018 and this year, 2022.
In 2018, those votes put the Conservative in second place, way behind the NDP’s Gurratan Singh, who won about 18,000 votes in 2018. This time, however, Singh’s vote in Brampton East was down by a whopping 10,000 and the Conservative won easily.
Those 10,000 lost NDP votes did not go to anyone else. The votes for the Liberals and for the other parties did not significantly go up this time compared to 2018.
What appears to have happened in Brampton East is that 10,000 onetime NDP voters simply decided to stay home.
In some ridings, the Liberals were spoilers, which is ironic since it was the Liberals who campaigned hard on a self-defeating and bogus strategic voting message.
Liberal leader Del Duca kept arguing the “NDP could not beat Ford” and ergo a vote for the NDP would be “wasted”. In fact, there were a number of ridings where it was the Liberals who took votes from the NDP and allowed the Conservatives to win.
Overall, the Conservative vote was down by a bit over 400,000 vis-à-vis the last election, the Liberals were only slightly down, by fewer than 100,000 votes, while the New Democrats had a whopping 800,000 fewer votes than they did in 2018.
New leaders and the beginnings of merger talk?
Now, both Liberals and New Democrats will have to choose new leaders. Doug Ford has a big majority, but Ontario still deserves an articulate, competent, effective and focused opposition.
There are some potential NDP candidates who, even at this early stage, are making noises about running for the leadership.
Bucking the provincial trend, NDPer Joel Harden won re-election massively in Ottawa Centre. He is a dedicated grassroots politician who did great work for the community during the truckers’ occupation. Harden was the first to call for Andea Horwath’s departure on election night, and he is not ruling out a run for the leadership.
One of the few bright spots for the NDP came in the neighbouring riding to Harden’s, Ottawa West-Nepean, where the New Democratic candidate, social policy researcher Chandra Pasma, defeated the sitting Conservative.
Pasma, an expert on guaranteed livable income policies, had come within 175 votes of winning last time.
The NDP member for Davenport in Toronto, Marit Stiles, is another who has not ruled out running for leader. She is a former school board member and did an effective job as the NDP’s education critic.
There will be other NDP candidates. The party as deep bench strength.
Perhaps some New Democrats will convince veteran federal MP Charlie Angus to run for the provincial leader’s job. He might have appeal to the sort of blue-collar workers Ford managed to lure away in this election.
For the Liberals, Mitzi Hunter, one of the few Black members of the legislature, got herself re-elected in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. She lost the leadership race last time to Del Duca and has not ruled out another try.
On election night, Hunter hinted obliquely that she might be open to some kind of merger or partnership with the NDP and Greens.
Many died-in-the-wool Ontario Liberals would rather eat a plate of grilled horse manure than throw in their lot with the New Democrats, but this second disastrous result for their party should raise existential questions for the Ontario Liberals.
The issue of electoral cooperation between the three Ontario opposition parties, which all notionally occupy the centre-left of the political spectrum, will almost certainly come up during the coming leadership campaigns.
Right-wing parties in Canada have not historically been reluctant to choose electoral success over ideological purity.
There were huge differences between the old federal Progressive Conservative party and the Reform/Canadian-Alliance party. But, in the early 2000s, when the two parties decided neither could win an election as long as they were eating each other’s’ electoral lunch, they merged.
The new Conservative (minus the Progressive) party then went on to win three elections in a row.
Ontario New Democrats, Liberals and Greens would be well advised to consider that example now.