There’s an episode in the sixth season of The Simpsons where Marge tries out for the local police force. During the physical fitness test, she lumbers across a field carrying heavy anchors, shimmies herself under a wire fence and hurls herself at a brick wall that she struggles to climb over.
Watching Marge attempt to conquer the wall, Chief Wiggum, who is supervising the obstacle course, remarks, “Women always have trouble with the wall — can’t ever seem to find the door.” Indeed, while Marge clings to the top of the wall, trying to pull herself up and over, we see that the other applicants are simply passing through a door installed at the bottom.
The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario is like Marge at that wall: forever opting for the most arduous path, when the route to success is often as simple as turning a knob.
Stacking the odds
The Ontario Liberals should have certainly lost the last election. And probably, the one before that, too. This time, Premier Kathleen Wynne has an abysmal personal approval rating, a top adviser to her predecessor found guilty of criminal charges and a litany of other scandals to her name. Hydro prices are out of control, doctors are angry about clawbacks, small business owners are frustrated over the pace of minimum wage increases and nearly everyone is fed up with the decade-and-a-half of waste, cronyism and general bone-headedness.
All the PCs have to do, really, is not screw this up. There’s the door: just walk through.
Instead, the party has chosen Doug Ford to lead it to the June election, surely to the delight of the Ontario Liberal Party. To be sure, it would be foolish to count out Ford at this point: he absolutely could defeat Wynne when Ontarians head to the voting booths in a couple of months. A February Mainstreet Research poll confirmed as much, reporting that 36 per cent of respondents would vote PC if Ford was leading the party.
But polls conducted before the writ has even dropped don’t provide the clearest indication of what will actually happen on election day. And if there’s one thing the Liberals know how to do, it’s how to run a laser-sharp attack campaign. Unfortunately for the PCs, out of all of the possible candidates, Ford provides the most ammunition.
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The genius of the Liberals’ past campaigns has been to tap into a central fear and exploit it. In 2007, it was all about then PC-leader John Tory’s promise to extend public funding to all faith-based schools. With Dalton McGuinty at the helm, the party expertly whipped up Islamophobic fears by couching a rejection of publicly funding religious schools in concerns about “segregation.”
Last election, the focus was on Tim Hudak’s destructive impact on the public service via his promise to eliminate 100,000 jobs (which was proposed to happen through attrition, but that detail got lost when the Wynne Liberals took control of the message). With the help of their union friends — who ran attacks warning against Hudak’s cuts to classrooms, the province’s police force, hospitals and so forth — the Liberals framed the choice as one between Kathleen Wynne’s “safe hands” or the other guy’s “reckless schemes.” In the end, Ontarians chose the devil they knew.
The party has wasted no time now in stoking fears about Ford. On Sunday, Wynne was at an Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation conference warning that Ford’s plan to scrap the carbon tax could result in as many as 40,000 job losses. On Twitter, she added that the province could see longer hospital wait times and larger classrooms under the Conservatives’ plan.
The Conservatives’ plan to kill carbon pricing and rush to balance the budget will put as many as 40,000 public sector jobs at risk. That means higher class sizes, longer waits for healthcare and fewer community supports.
But my suspicion is that the most persuasive attacks the Liberals will wage on Ford will be personal, not economic. Obviously, there’s fodder in the antics of his late brother, Rob Ford, who admitted to smoking crack cocaine as Toronto mayor. Though Doug will surely provide enough ammunition for his opponents on his own.
Latching onto his recent suggestion that parents should be consulted before minors can access abortions, the Liberals will characterize Ford as a threat to women’s autonomy over their bodies, to their access to medicine and to progressivism in general. Ford’s support among women was below that of Christine Elliott — and even below that of former leader Patrick Brown — as of February. A little Liberal spin will probably make that worse.
The Liberals will warn that Ford will try to bring Ontario back to the dark ages by scrapping the revised sex-ed curriculum. They will claim he has outdated views on mental health and disabilities, citing his past rejection of a home for disabled youth in his ward. And they will compare him to U.S. President Donald Trump, relying on the fact that a majority of Canadians will see that as a negative. When the pressure starts to mount on NDP supporters to vote strategically to thwart a premier Ford, the PCs could be in real trouble.
This fear-mongering likely wouldn’t have been credible against Elliott or Caroline Mulroney, but with Ford, it’s a perfect fit. The Liberals might be a train wreck, but Doug Ford is “dangerous.” That’ll be the claim, anyway. Good luck with that wall, Ontario PCs.