After a couple of days to reflect and dig deeper into the numbers, we have some thoughts on the recent Ontario election campaign and implications that we think will be important for our clients, and for Ontarians across the province.
The headline story coming out of Thursday night – beyond the obvious, that Premier Ford and his Progressive Conservatives were re-elected with an even larger majority – was voter turnout. At 43%, turnout was 13.5% lower than the 2018 election, and the lowest since Confederation. Only 4.6 million Ontarians, out of 10.7 million eligible voters, cast their ballots.
Should we be concerned about this apparent lack of citizen engagement?
In short, yes, but let’s not get apocalyptic about it. Our democracy is not in peril and, in many respects, the final results reflected what Ontarians were telling pollsters all along. In a post-debate poll conducted by Counsel, 39.7% of respondents agreed that things in Ontario were generally moving in the right direction. These numbers held steady throughout the campaign and on election day, 40.8% of those who voted cast a ballot for their PC candidate.
So, Ontarians got what they wanted in the end. Of course, we wish more Ontarians had exercised their franchise, but polling data suggests that even if every eligible voter had cast a ballot, the outcome would have been almost the same.
As to why turnout was so low, the answer lies in examining both the failings of the opposition parties, and what Ford and his team did right.
In the months leading up to the campaign and in the early days of the writ period, the opposition parties failed to land their punches. They couldn’t prosecute the case for change or sell the argument that Ford had failed. Their efforts were too little, too late, and too weak to make a difference.
It wasn’t for lack of trying or, frankly, for fodder to oppose the Ford government. Over 4,000 seniors died in our long-term care homes, Ontario’s COVID restrictions lasted longer than just about any other jurisdiction in the Western world, and the early days of the Ford administration were tumultuous, on top of the day-to-day challenges governments face.
So, why didn’t the attacks stick? There were five reasons, in our view:
First and most important, the Ontario economy has bounced back strong, and the number of people infected, hospitalized and who succumbed to COVID-19 in Ontario was far lower than in many jurisdictions around the world. Not only had the Ford government largely followed the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health in the final waves, but public opinion polling showed a real fatigue with talking about COVID… they just wanted it over. In short, highlighting the COVID failures was a non-starter for the opposition parties as there was no public interest in turning back the clocks, or more importantly the restrictions.
Second, was a lack of resources and time. Polls taken throughout the campaign showed that only about half of Ontarians had even seen, heard, or noticed anything related to the campaign in the previous three days. Wall-to-wall news coverage; intense advertising on radio, TV and social; candidates going door-to-door and election signs on every corner… and yet, half of Ontarians didn’t see, hear or engage in anything. It’s hard to break through in a short, 30-day campaign when most of the population isn’t paying much attention. Could the opposition have started their attacks sooner? Sure, but in the months leading up to the Ontario election about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the trucker protest, the Omicron variant, and other issues dominated the headlines. It would have been difficult, and expensive, to break through.
The two main opposition parties had to shepherd their resources for the writ period, when more Ontarians would be paying attention. The NDP will tell you they ran a fully-funded campaign – a reported $13 million. The Liberals spent considerably less than this, while the PCs spent more – likely $20 million plus. That’s a lot of money, but is it enough to break through in a province as big and diverse as Ontario? By way of contrast, in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race – a state 2 million residents smaller than Ontario – the leading Democratic candidates are expected to spend north of $44 million this year. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it hints at the challenges that Liberal and NDP campaign strategists had in this campaign. (Not that we would welcome U.S. style campaign financing in Ontario – far from it!)
The third reason the punches didn’t land, in our view, was the very effective job Ford and his team did to inoculate themselves from the inevitable attacks. In the months leading up to the vote, Ford looked at each area of vulnerability and crafted an effective answer:
- Long-term care: We’re building over 30,000 new beds… and, the Liberals before us created just 600 in their final term of office.
- COVID: We got you through COVID and we have a plan to avoid another lockdown.
- Affordability: We’re lowering gas taxes and sending every driver in Ontario a license sticker rebate.
- Wages not keeping up with inflation: We’re increasing the minimum wage.
- Health care: We’re building new hospitals.
- Housing: We’re building 1.5 million houses and cutting municipal red-tape
- Gridlock: We’re building the 413 and new roads… Subways, subways, subways;
- Child care: We landed the best deal for Ontario families.
These were simple prescriptions to complex policy problems, but on every major file, Ford and his team had a ready answer that involved building something. It was enough to deflect criticism so that this election never became the change election the opposition needed.
The fourth reason the punches didn’t land was that the opposition parties were forced to spend their limited time attacking each other in the so-called “progressive primary”. With the opposition distracted with each other, the centre and centre-right of the voter spectrum was left wide open for the PCs; they didn’t need to say much or offer up much specific policy to attract and assuage these voters.
On their right flank, the New Blue Party and Ontario Party proved to be weak, ineffectual, and of consequence in almost no seats. These parties spent a good deal of time and effort bizarrely attacking each other and taking shots at Justin Trudeau or Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum, but rarely attacking Doug Ford or local PC candidates. In the end, the New Blue Party, led by Jim Karahalios and the Ontario Party, led by Derek Sloan, combined to get 209,431 votes. They simply weren’t a factor or a threat to the PCs and Ford could afford to ignore them.
And finally, worthy of note was the lack of the more traditional wall-to-wall media coverage of the campaign. Neither the PCs or the Liberals ran with a high-profile campaign/media bus, and most events had just a couple of reporters on site, with a handful more dialing in through zoom.
The PCs were able to leverage this, limiting reporters’ questions and making small news holes even smaller and the oppositions’ job even tougher.
Credit must be given to Ford and his team, who ran a very disciplined, mistake-free, and effective campaign. Their message discipline was excellent and there were no “candidate eruptions” throughout the campaign. Yes, this resulted in less media interaction and far fewer all-candidate debates for local candidates, but there were also fewer opportunities to make mistakes, and mistakes are what makes news.
The PC messaging was simple and distilled to a single phrase: “Get it done.” These three words evoked everything that a voter needed to know about Ford and his platform. Their advertising was equally simple and punchy. And because of the significant fundraising advantage enjoyed by the PCs, they got more eyeballs onto their advertising than any other campaign.
In short, it was a textbook campaign. It was driven by data, simple messaging, strong ground organization, and full resources. That was a winning formula.
Every Premier has their focus and interests, and their time is limited and precious. “Get it done” reflects Premier Ford’s agenda. He wants to be seen as a builder and his success or failure will depend on his government’s ability to deliver important new infrastructure and continue to grow the economy.
We also expect that Ford will take a careful and cautious approach in the first year of his second mandate. He has the luxury of time and we expect he will use it. In his first post-election news conference, he signalled that he would take his time to select a new Cabinet and that the mandates for new Ministers will be clear.
We anticipate that the initial Cabinet will leave many key players in place, with the caveat of course, that a new Minister of Health will be needed, which could precipitate other major changes. The size of Ford’s win last Thursday has added considerable depth to his bench, with strong candidates elected across Ontario. Many of these newcomers, as well as veterans from the 2018 election victory who are not yet in Cabinet, are ambitious and will be seeking new portfolios or to be elevated to bigger roles. Ford can’t, and won’t, please everyone.
At a practical level, it is also worth noting that the agenda Ford put forward in the Budget and in the campaign doesn’t require a lot of legislative change. Building hospitals, roads, transit, and bridges requires executive decisions, not legislation. In fact, we can’t think of very many changes that Ford will want to make that require new legislation, except for a Budget Bill.
To fill this legislative void, Ministers, officials, and stakeholders may be wise to dust off old plans and forgotten draft bills to see if they can finally fit into the agenda. They may not be high-priority bills in the grand scheme of things, but the legislative agenda abhors a vacuum.
With the opposition parties weakened and without leaders for at least a year, the Ford government has a free runway to take this go-slow approach, catch its breath, get its plans in place, and “get it done” over the coming four years.
THE UNSPOKEN AGENDA
There were some issues rarely mentioned in the campaign that are likely to be prominent on the agenda over the next four years:
Municipal governance reform: In 2018, after Ford cut the size of Toronto City Council, other municipalities expected they could be next. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs created a fund for municipalities to study reforms to their operations and governance. Some municipalities refused to take advantage of this fund, while others conducted studies but haven’t acted on the recommendations. Ford and his Cabinet believe one of the biggest – if not the biggest – barrier to building more housing comes from the intransigence of municipal councils and the red-tape barriers put up by municipal bureaucracies. To spur more housing development, we expect Ford may use the threat of municipal governance reform to get concessions and shorten development time. Whether he does any of this before the municipal elections this Fall remains to be seen.
Electricity Generation: Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is slated to go off-line by 2025. Just before the election, the Province signalled its intent to procure more power from renewable sources, but many experts believe more baseload power is needed. Will Ontario move quickly to build new nuclear power plants? Perhaps small, modular nuclear reactors (which are still in the unproven design stage)? These could be some of the most consequential long-term financial decisions facing the province, with far-ranging impacts for economic, industrial and climate policy. While somewhat below-the-radar now, once those around the Cabinet table start to confront $20 billion decisions with a 50-year time horizon, controversy is sure to follow.
Waste Management: Ontario’s current waste management capacity is expected to be exhausted by 2032. The work to source, permit and build new waste management capacity and landfills has to begin now. But siting new landfills or other waste-management options, such as generating energy from waste, is a hugely controversial thing. Literally no one wants one in their backyard – or within 100 km of their backyard. Landfills are typically found in rural communities and there are very few parts of rural Ontario that aren’t represented by a Tory MPP. Allowing a landfill to be located in your community can be fatal to your future electoral prospects, so how the Ford government handles this file going forward will be hugely consequential and interesting. The government’s newly formed blue box program was controversial leading up to the election. Will the government move forward or consider more consultation with the sector?
Of course, we have hardly touched on big issues like climate change and adaptation, the rapidly shifting auto-sector (which is so important to Ontario’s economy), social welfare policy, the massive investments needed in mental health (particularly children’s mental health), or so many other areas needing attention. While the platform of the PCs in the last election may have been light on detail, the agenda they are facing is certainly a heavy one.
“Get it done” may be a slogan, but it is also rapidly becoming an ethos for the Ford team. They recognize that their success will be measured by how well they get things built.
Over the next four years, we’ll be working alongside the Ford government with our clients to bring forward their best ideas and partner to GET IT DONE. Let’s get started.
Senior Vice President