Ontario Progressive Conservatives are campaigning as if COVID-19 is over – but experts say the pandemic will most likely color the election campaign in one way or another, and may even give a boost to the outgoing party with voters regarding broken promises.
Although the official campaign has yet to begin, Premier Doug Ford and members of his cabinet toured the province making a flurry of promises under the banner of “Building Ontario”, stopping in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as in the Southwest and the North. Transportation is a major focus, with promises to build highways, subways and electric vehicles, as is health care infrastructure like hospital and long-term care expansion projections.
The Conservatives appear squarely focused on rebuilding the province post-pandemic and are positioning themselves as the only party capable of doing so ahead of the scheduled June 2 vote.
“They’re really trying to act like the pandemic is in the rearview mirror,” said Cameron Anderson, a professor of political science at Western University.
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That tone, including the decision to lift nearly all public health measures related to the virus in the six weeks before the election campaign, represents a change for incumbent Premier Doug Ford, Anderson noted, because Ford for much of the pandemic seemed more willing to introduce public health restrictions than Canada’s other Conservative prime ministers.
Susie Heath, senior consultant at Crestview Strategy and former Liberal staffer, said the flurry of funding announcements also comes across as an attempt to “change channels” on the pandemic and appease frustrated voters who have been affected. negatively by measures such as business closures over the past few years.
“They may be hoping those voters don’t have a long memory and will watch all the good they advertise, maybe in their own constituency,” she said.
This short-memory hope could also apply to a number of central campaign promises from the Conservatives’ 2018 victory that have still not been delivered: beer and wine are still not available in convenience stores, and electricity bills have not been reduced by 12%. hundred.
The Ford government has also changed its stance on major issues over the past year, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour after reversing a wage increase planned years earlier and backing the infrastructure and electric vehicle manufacturing after halting construction of charging stations and ending buyer discounts shortly. after taking power.
Regarding the flip-flops and broken promises of four years ago, analysts who spoke to The Canadian Press said the pandemic that is turning the world upside down could engender some forgiveness and some understanding of the share of voters.
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“The pandemic is going to color a lot of the government’s performance assessment, to the point of masking, I suspect, some of the previous promises or policies that may have been changed or changed or not yet addressed,” Anderson said, noting that the Ford government has framed some of these policy changes on issues as responses to a changing world, which could mitigate potential damage.
Earnscliffe Strategies’ Shakir Chambers, also a Conservative strategist who worked on Ford’s campaign platform in 2018, said the pandemic will remain an “X-factor” throughout the campaign.
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But he said the decision to focus on non-pandemic issues like auto manufacturing is good for PCs because it allows them to connect with people on the job and affordability at a time when high part of the party’s electoral base is tired of the pandemic measures. and wants to discuss other priorities.
Another potential factor, he said, is the influence of new right-wing parties like the New Blue and the Ontario Party which are stoking lingering resentment against the government over measures such as shutdowns and vaccination policies, although the majority of these policies have ended.
Similar themes are also behind the immense popularity of federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre. Chambers said issues in the federal leadership race and right-wing dissident parties could spill over and affect Ford’s campaign even as he attempts to distract attention from COVID-19.
“It’s going to be a tough fight for Ford,” Chambers said. “How do you deal with that so that you don’t lose your party base, especially in these kinds of contested areas, but at the same time you don’t disable the majority of Ontarians who need some level of health restrictions public to be careful. It will be an interesting walk for him in the future.
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Ford enters the campaign with the advantage of the incumbent, and the latest polls indicate that the Progressive Conservatives are ahead of the other parties, although the Liberals appear to be gaining ground. Chambers noted that even with this apparent lead, Ford is fighting for a majority, as all opposition leaders have indicated they will not support a PC minority.
The PCs need 63 seats to get a majority. It’s doable for Ford’s party, Chambers said, but the Tories are also launching their campaign without a significant number of incumbents, including hard-hitting cabinet ministers like the health minister and deputy prime minister Christine Elliott, and several seats in the GTA could be competitive for the other parties.
Jeffrey Rosenthal, a statistics professor at the University of Toronto who analyzes polls, noted that anything can happen during a campaign to change the image — including leftist voters answering early polls.
“There are quite a few voters who probably want the PCs out and they don’t care so much whether it’s the NDP or the Liberals who come in. Many of those voters, you can imagine them swayed by early polls as the election heats up. ,” he said.
“What I watch the most in the coming months is what will happen to this NDP-Liberal balance. If he rallies around one party or another, that will change everything.
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