2022 Election Preview: Pandemic Politics and How Ontarians Will Vote

This is a politics website, and it’s hard to escape the knowledge that an election is coming next year. Actually, there are two elections coming in 2022, but for the purposes of this lengthy analysis piece, we will focus on the first one, the Ontario provincial election. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost four years since Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives were elected, but let’s look back at how this term began, look at where we are now, and then look at what might be coming next…

Part I: The Provincial Landscape  in 2018

A lot’s changed in three-and-a-half years, and we’re not just talking about the widespread societal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recall the 2018 Provincial Election. Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals were trying to secure their fifth term, but it was an uphill climb; the party started the election in a distant third place and Wynne herself had a disapproval rating of 71 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives path to government was interrupted early in 2018 when a CTV News report accused then-PC leader Patrick Brown of sexual misconduct with two women. Though Brown denied the allegations, he was forced to resign as leader and that prompted an ad hoc leadership race that resulted in Doug Ford winning despite being just four years out from a failed campaign to succeed his beleaguered brother Rob as the Mayor of Toronto. While the Progressive Conservatives led opinion polls with 40 per cent approval, 49 per cent of people disapproved of Ford as leader.

That left the NDP who was in ascension. Leader Andrea Horwath was going into her third election, which made her the most experienced provincial leader in terms of campaigning, and if the Liberals were as fatally wounded as their disapproval ratings pre-writ would have people believe, then the best hope for stopping Ford from the left was the NDP. Horwath was repeatedly rated the best choice as Premier, and was the only one of the three main leaders whose favourables were better than their unfavourables. Also, for a period from about mid-May to the beginning of June, the NDP led opinion polls before the PCs pulled ahead leading up to Election Day.

When the votes were counted on Election Night, the PCs won 76 out of 124 seats with 40.5 per cent of the vote, a swing of about 50 seats from the 2014 result in what was widely seen as province-wide rejection of the Liberals after nearly 15 years.

The Liberals themselves lost 48 seats and retained only seven MPPs in the Legislature. Wynne, who just days before the election indicated that she was about to lose, announced her intention to step down as Liberal leader though she herself retained her seat. Horwath became Official Opposition leader, gaining 18 seats for a total of 40.

The historic news was in Guelph. For the first time in Ontario history, a member of the Green Party was sent to the Ontario Legislature. “I’m just so thankful that we had so may amazing volunteers literally deliver this through people powered change,” said Schreiner on the CFRU election night show.

In Toronto, the Premier-elect declared that new era in governance had begun. “My friends, help is here,” Ford said. “Our team will work every single day to deliver this vision. We will every single day for a better Ontario, a better future and a brighter future for our children. An era of economic prosperity, the likes of which this province has never seen before.”

Part II: What Kind of 42nd Legislature Has This Been? 

Almost immediately upon taking office, the new Premier Ford set a course to shake things up. The new Ontario government slashed the number of city council seats in Toronto nearly in half just days before the close of nominations for the 2018 Municipal Election, and the elections for new regional chairs York, Peel, Niagara, and Muskoka were cancelled.

Ford and Co. also cancelled a Basic Income Pilot program that was started by the Liberals, and they cancelled a lot of the climate change projects including a cap and trade agreement arranged with Quebec and California. The new government changed the rules for what constitutes official party status so that they could marginalize the now third-party Liberals, and then they proposed changing some development rules that would have limited public feedback, allowed proposals to override official plans, and make all decisions final without ability to appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).

The Ford government’s quick movement on all kinds of files was a non-stop source of controversy; issues erupted so fast that the press struggled to keep up. When they delivered their first budget in the spring of 2019, there was a wide-spread rejection of some of the spending cuts aimed at municipalities that would take effect in that current fiscal year, weeks after most of those cities, including Guelph, had established their own budgets.

The pressure was also felt on Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, conservation authorities, and public health institutions.

Before the pandemic, the Provincial government’s heavy foot on the gas peddle of change didn’t make it many friends, and often time public pressure forced them to change course like with their proposed changes to the collection of development charges. Bill 108 initially limited the collection of DCs to so-called “hard” infrastructure like roads and pipes, but that hard a shift was eventually rolled back with input from municipal treasurers.

If the government was speeding through issues, they were also speeding through members. Simcoe-Grey MPP Jim Wilson was forced to resign from the PC caucus and from his cabinet position less than six months after the election when sexual misconduct allegations came to the surface. The Premier’s Office initially announced that Wilson was stepping down to deal with “substance abuse issues.”

About a month later, Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MPP Amanda Simard resigned from the PCs over the elimination of the Province’s French-language services commissioner and cancelled plans for a French-language university. She joined the Liberals in 2020.

Simard was not be the last departure. Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MPP Randy Hillier was initially suspended from caucus for mocking parents of children with autism who were at Queen’s Park to demand more support. Hillier was formally removed from caucus weeks later, and has since become a leading voice in the anti-lockdown and vaccine hesitancy movements.

Cambridge MPP Belinda Karaholios, York Centre MPP  Roman Baber, and Chatham Kent-Leamington Rick Nicholls similarly left the PC caucus over COVID skepticism and the Provincial government’s response, while Durham MPP Lindsey Park stepped down after some confusion about her vaccination status. In all, the PCs have only lost seats in the Legislature due to the internal drama in their own party.

PART III: A Look at Things to Come

When the provincial election begins, Ford and his ministers will be asked to defend all the moves they made before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the moves they’ve made since.

The big question is what will the pandemic look like by spring? Will we have reached “COVID Zero”, or will we have learned how to live with COVID well enough to get back to something resembling reality? Did we manage to avoid another lockdown? Did schools remain open? Was the healthcare system able to weather the storm teased by the sudden rise of Omicron? Will Ford and company be able to take credit for the victory over COVID, and will Ontario voters be able to forget any stumbles along the way?

Perhaps the bigger point is whether or not any of the Progressive Conservative’s stumbles along the way really mattered. It might surprise you to learn that with few exceptions, primarily the spring of 2020 and spring of 2021, Ford and the PCs have enjoyed a consistent lead in the polls. In a Leger poll on December 13, the PCs held a 10-point lead over their nearest competition; 38 per cent support to the NDP’s 28 and the Liberals’ 25.

Some voters will be surprised by that insight, how can the Ford government still look so relatively strong after everything they’ve done both before and during the pandemic. This may be a case of “the Devil you know”, but it also may be a case of not finding much in the way of inspiration with Ford’s potential replacements.

Horwath would be the obvious first choice to succeed Ford in the premier’s office, but the NDP often struggle to stay out ahead of the Liberals let alone trying to get out ahead of the PCs. Consider two Abacus Data polls two weeks apart in October 2020, in the first poll the NDP lead the Liberals 29 per cent to 26, while in the second poll a week later it was the Liberals leading with 29 per cent to the NDP’s 25. Interestingly, PC support was unchanged in both those polls, but it explains why last summer, an NDP campaign ad took aim not at Ford, but at Liberal leader Steven Del Duca.

So can Del Duca lead the Liberals back to government? While he perhaps gets points for not being Doug Ford, he does bring with him the baggage of several years of service as a cabinet minister under both Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne. Sudden swings back to Liberal in terms of popular support seem almost reflexive on the part of the electorate, and that’s borne out by the polling. The last time the Liberals led in the polls this past spring it was within the margin of error in two of the five polls, and they only beat the PCs by one per cent in another.

The message is that the Liberals can’t just be passive and uncontroversial and win election in June, they need to either make a case for themselves as the government in waiting, or they have to hope that the PCs make a critical error that loses some soft support among people along the political centre more likely to vote Liberal than NDP. On the other hand, perhaps there’s a chance that the PCs will be critically injured from their right flank.

A number of new parties to the right of the Progressive Conservatives have emerged in the last year; some are led by former members of the PC caucus, and all of them are led by people who have made a name of themselves in the anti-lockdown/vaccine hesitant crowd.

Most recently, Derek Sloan was elected to lead the Ontario Party, an upstart party founded in 2018 by Jay Tysick, who claimed that he was disqualified from standing at a PC candidate in an Ottawa riding for being too socially conservative.

Sloan, who was the Conservative MP for Hastings, Lennox and Addington and ran for Conservative leader in 2020, was expelled from the federal party earlier this year for accepting campaign contributions from white supremacist Paul Fromm. He’s spoken at anti-lockdown protests, attended services at Aylmer’s Church of God in defiance of public health rules and has promoted quack science like vitamin D as a treatment for COVID.

Sloan’s colleague in the “End the Lockdown” Caucus, Randy Hillier, announced last November that he was also starting his own party, a provincial extension of the People’s Party of Canada called the Ontario First Party.

And then there’s the New Blue Party, currently represented by Cambridge MPP Belinda Karahalios in the Legislature, but it’s officially led by her husband Jim, who was disqualified twice from running for the federal Conservative Party leadership in 2020. Jim Karahalios has said that the focus of True Blue will be support taxpayers, places of worship and small businesses.

Part IV: The Guelph Picture

Whether or not candidates for all these parties emerge in Guelph before the June election remains to be seen, but there are still three candidates who have already been acclaimed to run in Guelph in 2022.

Naturally, all eyes will be on the incumbent candidate, Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner. In 2018, Schreiner’s historic win came with just over 45 per cent of the vote in Guelph, which was more than both his nearest competitors combined.

In an open election where the provincial electorate overwhelming rejected the incumbent party, Schriener’s victory in 2018 might seem more easily won than his odds for re-election, the question is whether or not Guelph voters feel that Schreiner was able to make an impact even while serving as a caucus of one.

Employment lawyer Peter McSherry was acclaimed as the Guelph PC candidate back in August, a marked contrast to the election prep from the local PC Party back in 2018 when Ray Ferraro was acclaimed as the candidate by the provincial party leadership just a few weeks before the writs were drawn up. Ferraro would go on to win 21.81 per cent of the vote, about one-fifth of a per cent more than NDP candidate Agnieszka Mlynarz.

McSherry has a great resume volunteering with community groups like the Kiwanis Club of Guelph and serving as vice-president of the Guelph Police Services Board, but how well will he be able to campaign, especially when defending the actions of a government he was never a part of? So far, no NDP candidate has been named for the 2022 election in Guelph.

Liberal support in Guelph was decimated in 2018; Sly Castaldi won just over 10 per cent of the vote when compared to the 41.5 per cent won by her predecessor Liz Sandals in her last election in 2014.

This time, the Liberals have acclaimed Raechelle Devereaux, who’s well known as the CEO of the Guelph Community Health Centre. The message game is on point with the Liberals endorsing a community leader who sits at the intersection of healthcare, mental health, and economic inequity, but Devereaux’s fortunes may be tied to the leader of the party and broader provincial trends. Guelph has traditionally been a bellwether, so might a province-wide swing in popular support to the Liberals have a reciprocal effect for the local candidate?

A Liberal comeback just four years after being reduced from government to seven seats seems statistically unlikely, but despite all the best analytics money can buy, we still can’t predict with certainty what the future will bring. Six months can be a lifetime in politics,  and what comes next is anyone’s guess. Like everything, we will just have to wait and see.

To be continued this spring…

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