What does Trudeau have to do with Ontario’s election? Ask Ford

Justin Trudeau isn’t on the ballot in this spring’s Ontario election.

But the prime minister does have a strange, recurring cameo role as Doug Ford’s reliable friend in Ottawa. Wait — shouldn’t it be Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca making those claims of closeness to all things Trudeau?

Del Duca, sitting down with the Star’s editorial board on Wednesday, said yes, he’s noticed the Ford-Trudeau show, but he’s not all that fussed about it.

“Obviously, I saw the announcement that Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau made in Windsor shortly before the election started,” Del Duca said. One of the leaders — the prime minister — was governing, Del Duca said, while the other one, Ford, was simply campaigning. And that’s fine with Del Duca.

Ford doesn’t talk about Trudeau all of the time while he’s on the road campaigning to keep his job as premier after June 2. But after that election-eve announcement for the auto industry in Windsor, the Progressive Conservative leader has dropped occasional references to how well he works with the Trudeau government.

During the debate in North Bay a week or so ago, Ford even talked about those long nightly phone calls he had during the early days of the pandemic with Chrystia Freeland, the now-deputy prime minister he called his “therapist.”

It’s a far cry from how Ford talked about Trudeau — and vice versa — four years ago. Trudeau, for his part, doesn’t seem too interested in reviving those battles either, and so far has been far less publicly enthusiastic about Del Duca’s prospects than he was about the provincial Liberals under Kathleen Wynne.

I asked Trudeau’s office a couple of weeks ago whether Liberal MPs had been given any rules of engagement in this Ontario election campaign, particularly on whether they’d been told to be careful about campaigning against Ford.

Not at all, I was told. There’s lots of crossover between Liberals at the federal and provincial level. Del Duca said Wednesday he’s seen plenty of active involvement by Trudeau’s team on the hustings for their Ontario Liberal cousins.

“Many of my former colleagues from the legislature who now serve as MPs — Han Dong, Helena Jaczek, Michael Coteau, my dear friend, Yasir Naqvi, and so many others — they’re out there knocking on doors with provincial Liberal candidates,” Del Duca said.

“And the same is true for virtually the entire federal Liberal caucus, representing constituencies here in Ontario … That’s the kind of collaboration and co-operation that’s happening on the ground.”

Ford isn’t making the same boasts about campaign crossover with his federal Conservative cousins, who are currently in the midst of a leadership contest. He’s just as likely, in fact, to say he’s the kind of politician who can get along with the red team in Ottawa.

Some of that has to be simple electoral arithmetic. In last year’s federal election, 2,249,485 Ontarians voted Conservative, while 2,532,446 voted Liberal. Ford needs some of those Liberal voters.

But Del Duca said Liberal-leaning voters in Ontario already know who would be a better partner with the Trudeau government — a “very strong partner,” as he put it.

More to the point, he told my colleague Martin Regg Cohn, a Del Duca government would make a better deal with Trudeau on child care, and if the Liberal leader does become premier, he says he’ll reopen the agreement Ford struck with Ottawa just after the election. It will, in fact, be the first conversation he has with Trudeau if the voters put Liberals in charge again at Queen’s Park.

“We anticipate needing about $500 million more per year, each year for four years. That’s our costing,” Del Duca said. (The deal signed in late March currently amounts to $13.2 billion over six years for the province.)

That seems like a tall order, even for well-connected Liberal allies in Ottawa and Ontario.

Del Duca also said Ford is a late convert to co-operation with the Trudeau government. “I’ve lost count of how many millions of your dollars and mine he’s spent on lawyers to fight the federal government in court, as to whether or not carbon pollution should be priced in this province,” Del Duca said. “He has a track record of fighting the feds.”

This is overall, however, a strange feature of this Ontario election — a low-key contest over which leader, Ford or Del Duca, can work better with Trudeau. A lifetime ago, just before the pandemic, Trudeau’s biggest headache was supposed to be the “resistance” from the provinces — Ford-led Ontario among them.

Now, in 2022, we have Ford talking of how well he’ll work with Trudeau, and Del Duca saying he’ll fight the prime minister for a better child-care deal. One would almost think that Trudeau was on the ballot for the June 2 vote.

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