This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 1, 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 3.
This week, Ontario’s Liberals tabled their re-election road map (a.k.a. their budget) in the provincial legislature.
Expansive. Ambitious. Aspirational. Generous. Promises of billions in new spending on a broad sweep of priorities that the Liberals see as essential to maintaining and expanding a fair, inclusive and just society, which might also be essential to their re-election chances.
From free child care for pre-JK kids to dental coverage for Ontarians who don’t have coverage, the budget contained a little bit (or, OK, a lot) of something for everyone.
Pundits reacted how one might expect: by the government’s opponents, who can all but taste victory on June 7, it was decried as a spend-happy and irresponsible budget, a “suicide note” from a tired government in its final days.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford decried the budget as a “spending spree” funded by taking money out of the pockets of taxpayers.
Andrea Horwath, who has advanced many of these ideas for years, dismissed it as a last-minute, last-ditch attempt at re-election.
But the document was actually a clever one. Wynne’s Liberals had little strategic choice but to veer sharply left.
They are a government that has run out of room on the right side of the political spectrum. While in Ontario Liberals are often elected with support from moderately conservative voters, in the premier’s case that ship has sailed.
The Ontario Liberals steady leftward march of the last 15 years – commitments to green energy projects, raising the minimum wage and significant overall general spending increases, not to mention the accumulated baggage of being a long-serving government – have closed the door to many of those voters.
That’s why the party must now focus on minimizing the New Democratic vote and turning the election into a black-and-white battle with Ontario’s Conservatives.
Luckily for Wynne, this is authentic and comfortable territory for her. Long before she was elected as a provincial politician, Wynne was a passionate activist on a number of these files, and was well-established on the progressive wing of her party.
And so, the budget represented a declaration that the Ontario Liberals plan to extend this leftward shift, should they be re-elected.
It won’t be an easy task. Polls have repeatedly shown that Wynne has a troublingly low approval rating – far lower than that of Stephen Harper at a similar time, for instance. The party has comparably low polling numbers.
Going into the election, she has a team that has proven effective and capable at her side, which has lost none of its enthusiasm and belief. She has presented a budget her party will be keen to run on.
Given their cards, the Liberals have optimally positioned themselves. Ford is always going to be the advocate for cutting government waste, and so a budget that highlights all of the good things Liberals believe the government can do for Ontarians creates a perfect foil.
It allows Wynne to be the force that believes in the opportunity for government to do good against a guy who just wants to cut.
And it renders Horwath little more than an afterthought.
It is, perhaps, the premier’s only shot: a left-wing coalition that supports a left-wing approach to policies. Seats in urban and Northern Ontario are the bulwark of that coalition.
That said, the Liberals will need some breaks.
To climb out of their current doldrums and to get the attention – and crucially, the consideration of the electorate – Doug Ford will have to stumble and prove he is not yet ready for prime time. Andrea Horwath will have to, once again, fail to connect with voters in a meaningful way.
The election will be decided in two months after a pitched battle over where Ontario’s values truly lie. The Liberals have staked out their position firmly, crisply and clearly.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.