Here’s the ballot question most Ontario voters want answered:
Who can defeat Doug Ford?
If you listen to Andrea Horwath, only her New Democratic Party can prevent him from winning re-election as premier — a claim she repeated in Monday’s debate and at every campaign stop this week.
If you believe Steven Del Duca, only his Liberals can stop Ford’s Progressive Conservatives from keeping power — a pitch he made directly to the Toronto Star’s editorial board Wednesday (Horwath is up on Friday).
Hence the so-called “progressive primary” that pits these two supposedly centre-left parties against each other in a fight to the finish — at the midpoint of the campaign — to see who can then finish off Ford’s Tories in the finale.
So, who then is the dragon slayer best placed to defeat Doug Ford?
No, not Horwath, nor Del Duca — not on their own. Not even Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, the star performer in the televised debate who’s probably the most progressive and expressive of them all.
Turns out there is only one politician who can prevent Ford from cruising to another electoral victory:
Only Doug Ford can defeat Doug Ford.
The polls suggest Ford is so far out in front (for the moment) that this is his election to lose — provided he doesn’t lose his cool or let his rivals catch fire. But why exactly is he the front-runner in the first place, at this late date, after unleashing so much disruption that he drove so many Ontarians to distraction?
Precisely that question was put to Del Duca when he sat in the hot seat in the Star’s newsroom, as the assembled editors and journalists awaited his answer.
Del Duca didn’t really have one, beyond saying what he always says: “We’re gonna stay focused, we’re gonna keep working, and we’ll see what the voters say come June 2.”
Nor has Horwath come up with a persuasive explanation for their shared failure — hers and his — to overtake Ford after so many years. Instead, as Del Duca likes to point out, the NDP aims much if not most of its rhetoric and resources at taking the Liberals down before turning their attention to Ford.
Which might leave Ford laughing all the way to the finish line. Because the problem with the “progressive primary” analogy, borrowed from U.S. party primaries that precede actual elections, is that they are just the preliminary event — not the main bout in which Ford remains the heavy favourite.
By any measure, the PC leader did what he had to do on debate night — avoid a catastrophic blunder — but there are still two weeks to go until voting day. Anything can happen between now and June 2.
But it is an axiom of politics that governments aren’t defeated in elections — they ultimately defeat themselves.
What’s fascinating about Ford is that he has confounded that formula — not by defeating his current self, but by despatching and replacing his old self with a new model. The politician who took Ontario by storm in 2018 — and flamed out within a matter of months — has repurposed his unlikeable and unelectable persona and policies by changing his senior staff and adjusting his vision.
Enough people changed their minds about Ford to take him out of the danger zone. And not enough people turned their minds to the alternative parties.
Which takes us back to that “progressive primary” that preoccupies the rival NDP and Liberal parties. Horwath and Del Duca want you to think that they have undisputed claim to the mantle of progressivity.
Yet on debate night, it fell to Schreiner to shame both parties for embracing Ford’s tax-fighting, fee-cutting electoral gimmicks, while turning a blind eye to festering problems of poverty in this province. Beyond the Greens, however, there’s another politician who wants to be seen on the side of the angels.
Ford has recast himself as a humble friend of the working class, boasting about a series of union endorsements and taunting Horwath that her New Democrats are estranged from the labour movement (in fact she has bigger endorsements). He used that line in the debate, and he repeats it every time he lines up another union local to serve as a backdrop at his campaign photo-ops — as he did Wednesday in Horwath’s home turf of Hamilton, with steel mills belching fumes on the horizon.
Ford wants workers to forget that he badmouthed elected labour leaders as “union bosses” four years ago, froze the minimum wage for years, cancelled paid sick days and killed a basic income pilot for the impoverished. That was then, this is now, and voting day is in two weeks.
All that said, it’s not as if Ford is unbeatable.
Just ask John Tory.
He trounced Ford in the 2014 race for Toronto mayor, not by winning a “progressive primary” as a so-called “Red Tory,” but by offering himself as a competent if uncharismatic alternative to the mercurial Ford.
When Ford took the province by storm a mere four years later, he benefited from a sharper ballot question — “Who can defeat Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals?” — with a clearer answer:
Given the choice, voters chose Ford’s PCs over Horwath’s NDP. Either way, 2018 was a “change” election, so why isn’t 2022 shaping up as a change election yet, according to the opinion polls?
The answer is that Ford has changed himself — even if they are only surface changes — to fit the changing times: He raised the minimum wage (minimally), restored sick days (a little), signed a child-care deal with Ottawa (belatedly), made peace with the federal Liberal government (profitably), and cultivated union leaders (with costly but controversial highway construction).
Despite the dreams of Del Duca and Horwath, this election isn’t looking like a referendum on Ford, but a fight about affordability — precisely the kind of ballot question he prefers talking about. Especially when his rivals are reduced to aping his agenda of tax cuts, fee rebates and other baubles.
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