What Made Ontarians Vote For Doug Ford?

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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 12, 2018.

It was a “me” election that turned on a dime.

Ontarians handed Doug Ford a strong Progressive Conservative majority because they feel he best understands their pocketbook struggles and trust him to take quick action on excess government spending, says a revealing post-vote study by Navigator Ltd.

This despite Ford’s apparent lack of sophistication and what many respondents viewed as a “gimmicky” promise to fire the “Six Million Dollar Man” who runs Hydro One to provide a pound of flesh for high electricity rates.

“If on the first day he calls in the auditors and cuts 10 cents off the gas tax he’ll be off to a very good start,” said Jaime Watt, executive chairman of Navigator, the communications and strategic advice firm which conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews across Ontario.

“They want action, fast,” Watt, a Conservative strategist, told the Star. “Fast. Fast. Fast. They don’t expect any study, any shilly-shally, dilly-dally, whatever, they expect him to get right to work on these things.”

The tax break on each litre of gasoline and ferreting $6 billion in cost savings out of a $150 billion provincial budget were key elements of the PC platform that resonated with large swaths of the electorate who also view carbon taxes as a cash grab.

“People feel out of control right now,” said Anne Kilpatrick, lead research principal for Navigator, noting research participants were “really enthusiastic” about Ford’s promise to bring in auditors to look for wasteful government spending because “they can’t get a hold of the reins of their pocketbooks and their finances.”

Voters were less concerned with longer-term issues like infrastructure, pharmacare and anything aimed at the next generation – a factor that could have implications for upcoming municipal and federal election campaigns, according to the Navigator study to be webcast Wednesday with a panel discussion on thestar.com. But that “selfish mood” of an impatient electorate also sets a challenge for Ford as his team prepares to take the reins of power from Premier Kathleen Wynne on June 29 following 15 years of Liberal rule.

“It becomes important as he confronts the reality of governing,” Watt said. “It’s easy in opposition to say you’ll move quickly.”

In a Toronto-area focus group, one woman in her 40s told Navigator researchers: “For the last two years, I can’t keep any money in the bank. I can’t put any savings … I have to get every penny out to pay for my utilities and the gas and everything.”

Another woman described her tax-focused voting criteria, when the Liberals and NDP were talking about broader pharmacare and dental care, as “a selfish decision.”

Behind the trust of Ford was a view that he is an “everyman,” even though he comes from a wealthy family thanks to the printing business started by his father called Deco Labels and Tags.

“People didn’t care if he wasn’t the most sophisticated guy ever. What they cared about is he talked to them, he didn’t talk at them,” Watt added.

“He was talking about things that really mattered to everyday people. A lot of experts, smartypants columnists and others, sort of turned their noses up at his ‘For The People slogan.’ Well, it turned out to be brilliant.”

During latter stages of the campaign, however, Ford held news conferences to showcase candidates such as former MPP Christine Elliott as members of a team that was “ready to govern.” It helped to deflect attention from himself.

“He’s kind of a joke,” said a woman who voted PC over concerns about high taxes and despite worries about Ford, who had trouble providing reporters with detailed answers on his policies, being “unprepared” for the job of premier.

“But, hopefully, he has people on his team who will steer him in the right direction.”

The research also found respondents believe Ford’s business background makes him more likely to attract jobs to the province and that raising the minimum wage another dollar to $15 in January, as promised by Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, was too much. The New Democrat rejection of any prospect of back-to-work legislation in strikes was seen as “doctrinaire.” There was “pushback” at one prominent Ford promise, however, said Kilpatrick.

Although the PC leader pledged early and often in the campaign to fire Hydro One’s board of directors and the chief executive officer Mayo Schmidt – who earns $6.2 million in total compensation now that the former Crown utility has been partially privatized by Wynne – many people interviewed said it needs a re-think. That’s because news stories published after Ford made that vow revealed the CEO would be entitled to a “golden parachute” of $10.7 million if fired without cause.

“What they’re saying is, if it’s going to cost us more to fire than it is to keep them on and address the issue … maybe it’s not such a great idea,” said Kilpatrick. “They want him to really focus on the key issues. Don’t focus on the gimmicks.”

That gives the PC leader a “back door” to walk away from the promise to axe the CEO and board, she added, with one research participant noting “you just can’t go and fire someone … there are legalities.”

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