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Do Ford’s foibles foreshadow another Tory collapse?

The London Free Press with Anna Esselment 14 May 2018

The path from predicted victory to shattering loss is well trod by Ontario’s recent Progressive Conservative leaders.

John Tory did it in 2007.

Tim Hudak doubled down in 2011 and 2014.

In the first and third races, the fatal wounds were self-inflicted: Who will forget Tory’s push to fund faith-based schools, in a province where many still bristle at full funding of Catholic schools, or Hudak’s plan to cut the jobs of 100,000 public employees?

So when rookie PC leader Doug Ford stumbled in the Tory stronghold of Southwestern Ontario — hand-picking a candidate ripped for statements that critics say are racist, misogynist and homophobic — then refused to say whether or how that candidate, former broadcaster Andrew Lawton in London, was vetted, it raised three questions:

  • Is no lead safe from self-destructive Tory decisions?
  • Is the early gaffe in London, even before the campaign had begun, a sign of more to come in the heat of a 29-day race?
  • If Ford stumbles badly, and derails what otherwise could be a majority PC government, which party most benefits?

If Ford self-destructs, he has farther to fall than his party’s flag bearers in the last three elections, said Anna Esselment, an expert in Ontario politics who teaches at the University of Waterloo.

While Tory and Hudak held leads months before the start of election campaigns, by the time those races started, those leads had narrowed or disappeared entirely, she said.

“(This time) the Conservatives are starting with a much bigger lead when the campaign started,” she said. “There’s a lot more room for errors to happen.”

It’s not just the raw approval numbers that favour Ford. It’s also that the issues that seem to matter most now to Ontarians are in the populist PC leader’s wheelhouse.

“The policy issues that matter the most to the electorate also happen to be the policy planks that Doug Ford is seen to be performing much better on. If Doug Ford and the PCs remain focused on these policy planks, the PCs could hold onto their lead,” Eli Yufest, chief executive of Campaign Research Inc., wrote  after his firm polled Ontario voters days after Ford was chosen leader in a hurry-up contest in March.

Three of the four issues voters identified as most important are front and centre in Ford’s campaign pitch: Make life more affordable, improve accountability and cut government waste.

When the change vote is that high, it’s very hard for an incumbent party to get around that

Anna Esselment

The other issue in the top four, improving health care, seems ominous for the ruling Liberals in a province where those with mental illness can wait a week or more in ERs, those in debilitating pain can endure waits as long as a year or two for a new hip or knee, and overcrowding has become so endemic in Ontario hospitals that one of the province’s largest, the London Health Sciences Centre, started using a written hallway protocol this month that sets out when and how patients are to be moved to stretchers in hallways to free up space in ERs, surgical recovery rooms and intensive care units.

Just as concerning for Premier Kathleen Wynne, the legislation that her government has pushed through, from raising the minimum wage to expanding subsidies for medicine to those under age 24, are viewed by voters as less significant, the Campaign Research poll found.

Tory and Hudak shot themselves in the foot. Ford may need to unleash artillery.

If Ford falters, don’t expect the Liberals to be the beneficiary in the ways they have in the past. Polls have suggested that between 75 per cent and 80 per cent of voters want a change in government after 15 years of the Liberals at the helm.

“When the change vote is that high, it’s very hard for an incumbent party to get around that,” Esselment said.

Voters repelled by Ford’s follies are more likely sit out the election or shift to the NDP, whose chances this election to become the choice for progressive voters seem better than at any time since the NDP under Bob Rae won its only Ontario election in 1990, she said.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath is better positioned than at any other time to turn her likeable public persona into actual votes and seats.

Ford’s first blunder of the campaign came in London West, part of a small NDP enclave in an otherwise sea of Tory blue in mostly rural Southwestern Ontario. The PC leader cut short the nomination process there, brushed aside two candidates, one of whom had been campaigning for two years, so he could hand-pick Lawton, a radio firebrand who weeks earlier had been let go by AM980.

“However he got approved is beyond me,” said political scientist Peter Woolstencroft, a long-time Queen’s Park-watcher who taught at the University of Waterloo. “(Lawton’s) views are repellent.”

Lawton addressed the allegations against him in a Facebook post Monday.

“I was reckless in almost all areas of my life. . . . There are significant chunks of this period that I do not remember,” wrote Lawton, who tried to kill himself in 2010 and says he suffered from mental illness between 2005 and 2013.

His critics allege he made disparaging comments about Muslims and homosexuals, mocking the latter’s sexual practices and questioning as recently as 2015 whether those who committed hate crimes were the real enemy when gay men spread HIV/AIDS to other gay men.

Ford’s decision to stand behind Lawton, and his refusal to describe how he was vetted, has created a vulnerability the other parties may exploit, especially during the next televised leaders’ debate.

“How did this guy in London West get appointed over two responsible candidates?” Woolstencroft said. “This is an unforced error and certainly a vulnerability that has to be exploited.”

(Lawton is the husband of Free Press reporter Jennifer Bieman.)

The question then becomes, will Ford stay calm and on message, or will he lash out, the political scientist said.

Whether we get composed or confrontational Ford isn’t clear.

Ford has lashed out sometimes in the past. The perils of doing so in a debate were shown in 2015 when former Alberta premier Jim Prentice lost his cool, telling the woman who would defeat him, the NDP’s Rachel Notley, “I know math is difficult.”

But Ford also showed restraint in the first televised leaders’ debate this week and showed discipline when he ran a losing race seeking to become Toronto’s mayor.

Off the debate stage, Ford’s handlers are doing what they can to shield him from tougher moments.

The best chance for his opponents to pounce is in a debate, when pointed questions might push him off-script and trigger his temper.

Said Woolstencroft: “Ford cannot afford to lose it in the debate

THREE WAYS TO BLOW AN EARLY LEAD

2007:

Out of the gate: Eight months before the election, the PCs were in a dead heat with the ruling Liberals, with PC leader John Tory more popular than Premier Dalton McGuinty, 36 per cent to 26 per cent, an Angus Reid poll showed.

Path to victory: Persuade voters to reject McGuinty, a premier who imposed a $2.6-billion health care premium on Ontarians one year after he promised in the 2003 campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes.

Self-inflicted wound: Tory proposes to extend public funding to faith-based private schools.

Outcome: Liberals lose a single seat, winning 71 of 107. While the number of ridings grows by four, the Tories end up with just two more, and the NDP creeps up from 7 to 10.

Post-mortem: Moderate conservatives who expected Tory would bring back the glory days of longtime premier Bill Davis instead had their faith dashed when the school funding proposal stole the spotlight from McGuinty’s broken tax pledge.

2011:

Out of the gate: Four months before election day, a Forum Research poll shows new PC leader Tim Hudak up 15 points over Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, with the NDP nipping at Grit heels.

Path to victory: Make the election a referendum on the Liberals’ eHealth scandal and a sluggish economy that hadn’t recovered manufacturing jobs lost during the brutal 2008-09 recession.

Self-inflicted wound: Nothing major

Outcome: McGuinty-led Liberals lose 17 of 70 seats and are relegated to a minority government after falling a seat short of a majority.

Post-mortem: Hudak failed to connect with voters and focused on an issue with little traction — tax cuts — instead of economic fears. That left no margin for smaller gaffes when their Tories were critical of foreign workers and a sex-education pamphlet.

2014:

Out of the gate: The PCs slightly lead the Liberals in opinion polls five months before the vote, with results becoming more scattered as the election nears.

Path to victory: Focus on scandal so widespread, McGuinty stepped down, leaving the party in the hands of Kathleen Wynne. Ornge Air Ambulance is plagued with mismanagement, green energy subsidies had left many voters fuming and the Grits had cancelled two gas plants to gain electoral advantage in 2011, a manoeuvre estimated to have cost taxpayers $1 billion.

Self-inflicted wound: Hudak promises to eliminate 100,000 jobs from Ontario’s public sector, stoking fears of cuts that were a hallmark of former PC premier Mike Harris.

Outcome: Liberals regain majority while picking up 10 seats, virtually all at Tory expense.

Post-mortem: Hudak abandoned his more passive 2011 approach, swinging for the fences but missing badly.

2018: A LEAD TOO BIG TO LOSE?

Less than three months before the election, and just days after the PCs chose Doug Ford to lead their party, a poll in March of decided voters painted a bleak landscape for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals.

  • The PCs are backed by 43 per cent of decided voters, the Liberals 27 per cent and the NDP 23 per cent.
  • In riding-rich Toronto, a Liberals fortress, the PCs and Liberals are in a dead heat.
  • More people rate Wynne as a poor leader (55 per cent) than Ford (23 per cent) and Andrea Horwath of the NDP (11 per cent) combined.
  • Only 24 per cent rate Wynne good or excellent, versus 48 per cent for Horwath and 47 per cent for Ford.
  • Three of the four issues most identified as extremely important are in Ford’s wheelhouse: Make life more affordable, improve accountability and cut government waste.
  • Near the bottom of the issues heap identified as important are Liberal initiatives: cap and trade energy policies, raising the minimum wage and fully subsidizing pharmacare for people under age 24.

Source: Toronto firm Campaign Research