Which Ontario political leader can meet the moment?

Article originally published in The Star

Message, fundraising and strategy are all factors in political campaigns that determine if the champagne will be for congratulations or commiserations on Election Day. To the frustration of campaign pros everywhere, one of the most important factors is one they have almost no control over — moment.

Being the right person at the right time has been the key to victory for several campaigns. Unfortunately, this is tough to predict, and nearly impossible for a campaign to create.

When Toronto grew tired of being fodder for late-night TV monologues, people sought stability and turned to John Tory to replace the late Rob Ford. In the 2015 federal election, aspiration replaced austerity as the public’s priority and Justin Trudeau replaced the more managerial Stephen Harper.

In Ontario, both Premier Doug Ford and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath should be asking if that moment may already be passing them by. Compared to the 2018 election results, a recent poll from Leger shows Ford’s Conservatives down 6 points, with the NDP down 7 points.

Ford and Horwath’s ideals may sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but their approach to politics is closer than either would want you to believe.

Publicly, Ford and Horwath both favour a brawling style of partisanship, often raising rhetoric to a boiling point. Contrast that with Liberal leader Steven Del Duca who, in the summer, invited all party leaders to sit down together to discuss mandatory vaccinations for health care and education workers — an invite Horwath and Ford both declined.

Ford and Horwath may find that what plays well with the party faithful may fall flat with a general public that has grown accustomed to more productive political partnerships during the pandemic.

For Ford, meeting the moment in 2022 will be hampered by his words in 2018. He asked Ontario voters who they would trust to manage the books, then-premier Kathleen Wynne or Horwath.

Recently, the auditor general showed that Ford’s government delivered nearly $1 billion in pandemic aid to businesses that qualified for less than they received or were entirely ineligible. Ford’s government also declined to pursue $1 billion from the 407, when low traffic volumes meant the private company that now owns the highway taxpayers paid for, owed those same taxpayers a cheque.

That is $2 billion in the pockets of one private business or another, that should have been in Ontario’s coffers and would have been if Ford kept his promise about keeping a closer eye on Ontario’s finances.

Horwath tried to meet the moment in 2018, promising the NDP was the only party that could stop Ford being elected premier. Despite winning more NDP seats than she ever has, Ford won anyway, and Horwath has struggled to connect with voters since. Polls show the NDP is currently in third place in what is essentially a three-party race.

Having run to the right of Wynne in 2014 and failed, Horwath’s recent announcement of pursuing a $20 minimum wage is an early indicator of a more left-leaning platform for 2022. However, if the more middle of the road NDP couldn’t win in 2014 or 2018, why would a shift to the left succeed in Ontario, where the electorate tends to stay in shouting distance of the centre?

That leaves Del Duca with the best chance to seize the spotlight in next year’s election. Pundits will say his biggest challenge is name recognition. If that’s true, being the unknown quality may be Del Duca’s advantage against two leaders voters already know all too well.

If Del Duca’s policies on winter tire tax credits, a four-day work week, and reinvesting millions into schools by cancelling the unpopular Highway 413 are how voters get to meet him, Del Duca may be the set to seize the moment in 2022.

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