In the Summer/Fall issue of Inroads, I noted at the end of my election preview article that while Ontario’s provincial politics played no role in the federal elections of the seventies, by all appearances that was not going to be true in the upcoming election.1 Last December and January, prior to most of the major political developments of 2019, the federal Conservatives were averaging about 40 per cent in the Ontario section of the national polls. On October 21, Andrew Scheer’s Tories picked up just 33 per cent of the vote in Ontario, down slightly from the last election, while the Liberals, despite slipping a few points, won 79 seats, just one fewer than in 2015.
The difference can be chalked up to Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Sworn into office June 29, 2018, Ford had become such an unpopular political figure that Justin Trudeau made the Ontario Premier a staple of his political messaging. Trudeau warned that, should Andrew Scheer become prime minister, he would copy Ford’s spending cuts, such as those to education and other services. In the two weeks leading up to the election, Trudeau campaigned hard in the hopes that NDP and Green supporters would vote Liberal, arguing that they should vote for “a progressive government, not a progressive opposition.” The appeal to such voters to accept the necessity of casting a ballot for their second choice to avoid a Conservative government was particularly effective in Ontario.
To help out his federal counterpart, Ford suspended the provincial legislature until after the federal election and kept a generally low profile as Premier over the course of the campaign. However, he could not avoid governing, or the daily reporting that comes with it. As students returned to schools, universities and community colleges, tales of consequences of education cuts reinforced the impression of the unpopular austerity that dominated the first year of the Ford government. The promise of tax cuts had little impact on the negative feelings evoked by Ford’s regime.
There is a constituency for this kind of governance, but it achieves political success in Canada in our first-past-the-post political system only in particular circumstances. A deeply unpopular Kathleen Wynne regime coming at the end of 15 years of Liberal rule in Ontario produced the Ford victory in 2018, a situation without parallel in the 2019 federal election.
As the federal Liberals did not win a majority, they may not control the timing of the date of next federal election. The two most recent federal minority governments, both Conservative Harper regimes, each lasted about two and a half years (from January 2006 to October 2008 and from October 2008 to May 2011). If the same were to be true of the incoming federal Liberal minority government, there would be a federal campaign in the spring of 2022. The next Ontario election is currently scheduled for June 2, 2022. The last overlap of federal and provincial election campaigns in Ontario happened in 1945. If this occurs in 2022, we could see a repeat of this year’s federal-provincial dynamic.
1 Ontario: The Ottawa–Queen’s Park Dynamic, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2019