This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 18, 2018.
Jaime Watt, who has orchestrated communication strategies behind elections across Canada, is writing a three-part series advising each of the main provincial party leaders on their best path to winning a majority government on June 7. This is Part 1.
It would be difficult to find a single Ontarian who even casually follows politics who is not familiar with the many challenges Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party has faced in the past couple of months. The twists and turns and drama are unlike anything the province has seen before.
And the timing of this Shakespearean tragicomedy makes the stakes even higher: In just a few weeks, the PCs will have an opportunity to replace the Liberal government after 15 long years.
It has been a long time in the political wilderness for the Tories – and they are ready to re-assume the reins of government.
Party members can all but taste victory, smelling the blood in the water that comes from the Wynne government’s historically high levels of unpopularity.
The choice of Doug Ford last weekend is high-risk and potentially high-reward.
Christine Elliott, his opponent in the leadership race, is a savvy politician who would have been a safe pair of hands running against an unpopular premier. Elliott is articulate, measured and deeply knowledgeable about the provincial government.
Ford, by contrast, is bombastic, unscripted and not particularly well-schooled in policy.
But last week demonstrated why what many perceive to be Ford‘s biggest weakness is, in fact, his strength.
Ford‘s straight-talking style is jarring. For example, when a reporter asks him a question, he answers frankly. His answers have the ring of authenticity. It’s jarring only because Ontarians have grown accustomed to politicians speaking in terms that are rendered meaningless by political correctness.
Early media reviews of Ford‘s style have been unflattering. A recent CBC interview portrayed the new leader as being “flustered” and “frustrated.”
In fact, Ford‘s interview was perfectly reasonable – and sounded so to Ontarians who are tired of the same old
When pressed on where he would come up with financing for his campaign platform, Ford said he would find it in “efficiencies” in government, a notion that has long been mocked by the media.
But when the reporter tried to skewer him for it, Ford quickly turned the tables, pointing out that he had actual experience in finding efficiencies and that he was going to find “four cents on the dollar.”
To many Ontario voters, this makes a lot of sense. Ontarians listening to that widely mocked radio interview almost certainly agree that four cents of every dollar spent by the Government of Ontario is wasted.
To many in the political class and the media, that idea is heresy. They insist it simply can’t be done.
These same commentators made these same comments during Mike Harris‘s campaign. But the Harris team stayed the course, despite the concern of institutional worrywarts.
The result? The received wisdom was simply not right, and Harris was rewarded with a massive majority. Ontarians were fed up and that feeling of discontent simmers today.
So that’s Ford‘s path to victory. He must continue telling his truths in the same real way that Ontarians believe. The man has a believability about him that other politicians just can’t capture.
There will be barrels of ink spilled on his errors and his approach, complaining that he simply doesn’t understand government and the nuances of policy.
But many Ontarians feel our province is headed in the wrong direction. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but there is a deep-seated sense that the provincial government has gotten things wrong.
Doug Ford gives voice to that feeling of discontent. And regardless of what the experts say, it’s the Progressive Conservatives’ best chance to win government in a generation.
It will sometimes be tempting for political advisers to try to rein the leader in, or to make his messaging more professional and buttoned down. But that’s the exact wrong instinct.
A better instinct is to let Doug be Doug.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.