Frustration with the Ford government — the scandals, the cuts, the vote to erase trans people’s existence — has once again opened the old wounds about how we got here.
It also challenges us to consider how we get out.
What was unusual about the 2018 Ontario election was the high number of NDP-PC vote switchers. These were people who were definitely not going to vote for the Wynne Liberals, but were unsure between the other two parties.
Repeatedly, polls showed the most common second choice of NDP voters was the PCs and the most common second choice of PC supporters was the NDP.
Also critical to this dynamic was that Horwath had very high approval ratings, while Ford’s approval was deeply negative. This continues, with a poll this week putting Andrea Horwath at a net +20 approval and Doug Ford at net -26.
These two factors were the driving impetus of the first half of the campaign.
Having started at about the 20 per cent mark, in the first week, Horwath’s NDP moved into second place. Horwath — under her campaign against “bad and worse” and for “change for the better” — was drawing support from both PC and Liberal vote totals. The PC-NDP switchers were coming to Horwath.
By the May 24 long weekend of the campaign the net effect of the growth of Horwath’s NDP and the declines of the Ford PCs put the two parties in a tie — both somewhere about 37 per cent support. The last two weeks broke this tie in the PCs favour, with two strategies being mainly responsible.
First, the Ford party rebranded as the “PC all-stars” who were “ready to govern” — and the implicit message was that Christine Elliot and Carolyn Mulroney were moderates who would constrain Ford’s impulsiveness (of course, this has not happened in the least).
And to create contrast, the Ford campaign created a narrative about “radical NDP” candidates — one who wore a white poppy (horror!) and another, an interfaith activist whose excellent work was praised by a local Jewish community group, who the Conservatives claimed posted a Hitler meme on her Facebook account. The NDP campaign could never find a trace — even a deleted trace — of the meme. Regardless, the PCs were now pitching themselves to the NDP-PC switchers as the safe choice.
The second strategy was the Liberals’ final gambit, a mythical crisis. A strike by contract instructors and teaching assistants at York University had started on March 5. On April 12 the government appointed an Industrial Inquiry Commission to bring a report to the Minister of Labour.
The Liberal government could have used its majority to pass any bill it wanted, through three readings would take some days. But Wynne waited four more weeks to act. On the very last day before the Legislature dissolved for elections, Wynne tabled a back-to-work bill and demanded all-party support to pass all three readings in the single day. Forget the students and staff — Wynne’s goal was to have the bill fail and pin blame for the strike on the NDP.
As the Ford PCs were pivoting away from the Highway 407 scandal and toward the PC all-stars, Wynne launched her campaign against the NDP, the election of which, she claimed, would lead to “never-ending” strikes. The play didn’t much move the needle for the Liberals, who still ended the election at 19.5 per cent support. But it did have an impact on those key PC-NDP switchers. Between the all-stars and the never-ending strikes, what was a 37-37 tied broke into a 40-34 win for Ford.
A few follow-on points. One, the PC assurance that Ford would not lead a centralized Premiership was critical — but, as was very foreseeable, has been proven utterly false. Two, no one can condemn Wynne for campaign for her own party – but her end-game strategy against Horwath lacked principles, objectively aided Ford and no contrition has ever been shown. Three, if New Democrats really want to win, they need to be prepared to make final week shifts and re-orient strategies in response to changing campaign dynamics driven by their competitors. There is no law that says the strategies of “all-stars” and “never-ending strikes” had to win.
Now the Ford PCs have a four-year term. It can feel deeply dispiriting. But what is absolutely critical is that it must be only a single term. And that requires vision and hope.
The New Democrats have put up resistance in the legislature — and that’s necessary, but not sufficient. If the New Democrats are to end the Ford Premiership, they need to build a movement that propels them there. Resistance is an argument to restore an old status quo — to turn the clock back to “bad” from “worse.”
The analysis that Ontario needs “something completely different,” something discovered by the NDP through listening to voters in focus groups, was deeply resonant. Our democracy isn’t doing the job. Our economy is leaving people behind. Our public services are declining. Our infrastructure isn’t keeping up. Climate is changing. People face discrimination. The status quo needs change. Less clear is what type.
The conservative response (and this isn’t just in Ontario) has been the construction of myths — that trans people don’t exist, that tax cuts for the wealthy boost the economy, that minimum wages hurt workers. There are a series of these illusions — or delusions, depending on the participant. It’s all about fingers in ears or hands over eyes.
But denialism, while it may obscure reality, doesn’t erase it. In place of the politics of illusion, what would be completely different is a culture-shifting movement to see problems as they really are. To stop abstracting and erasing reality and debating the illusionists — instead, that seeing reality and real people’s experience becomes the starting point. Whether it’s low wages, discrimination or access to public resources, to focus on the real and material effect on people’s life stories and go from there. Not government by myth.
Politics lives in a culture. The Ford PCs have one that erases and obscures. More than resistance, replacing a culture requires asserting a different one — perhaps one that really sees and hears.