In Canada’s Ontario Election, Policy Ideas Mean Everything

On June 7, the Province of Ontario, Canada is going to have its election. Called on May 9, Ontario is now in the middle of its intense, month-long battle for who gets to form the next government. The parties have entered the final two week stretch and things are getting heated.

First, a quick rundown of the options. The province has three main parties: the incumbent Ontario Liberal Party, which has controlled office for the past 15 years; the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP). The province also has the Green Party of Ontario, along with several other parties that get lost in mainstream discourse.

While the Liberals have held control for five consecutive elections, they are facing the fiercest contest for control that Ontario has seen in decades. Polling information has been taken in the province since January, where the Conservatives started with a giant 10-point lead over the Liberals, with the NDP trailing 10 points behind them. Over the pre-election period (January to April), polling data stayed roughly the same, with the Conservatives only gaining 5 points at most and the Liberals only losing 7 points at most for the total four-month period.

But then the Liberals and NDP started talking policy.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Graphic via CBC News Interactives[/caption]

What was a stagnant, anti-Liberal, two-party discourse amongst Ontario residents quickly turned into a massive shift in electorate support of the NDP, all in less than two weeks. The reason for this massive shift in NDP popularity? It was a clean and clear left-wing policy platform.

On April 29, the NDP officially launched its “biggest campaign in history,” a week after releasing their policy platform. Andrea Horwath, the party’s leader, quickly began reiterating the importance of their ideas and promises with substantive detail. As reported by the National Post, the NDP platform went hard to make sure they couldn’t be outflanked on the left by the Liberals.

As their detailed 98-page platform would go on to prove, they succeeded.

“The platform is 100 pages. It contains multitudes. And it’s all going to be paid for, in part, with a tax hike on big corporations and the rich.” — Chris Selley

In a side-by-side comparison by Maclean’s Magazine, all the parties’ stances on the most important political issues are listed for readers to make an informed decision on June 7. Deficits, taxes, energy, healthcare, weed and alcohol, education, environment and transportation are all compared. In a moment of informality, I seriously encourage you to check this out.

While the Liberals actually implemented their most recent budget with impressive left-wing policies on healthcare, including an $822 million investment in hospital care and infrastructure, the NDP have made a long-term plan for the future that invests $19 billion (averaging $1.9 billion per year) in the same infrastructure and more, and with specifics as to where that money is going. In contrast, the Conservatives have come out as being against planned safe-injection sites and haven’t provided a number for their support of hospital infrastructure.

“If the June 7 election is being framed — including by Premier Kathleen Wynne herself — as effectively a re-run of the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, then the New Democrats are testing the “Bernie Sanders would have won” hypothesis, offering voters an option for progressive change.” –– John Michael McGrath

What’s interesting about the political discourse in Ontario is that economically and socially, left-wing ideas and platforms are ridiculously popular. This fact has been acknowledged by all the prominent parties, and it’s evidenced in their rhetoric and policies. Actually, it has been for years.

Part of the reason the Ontario Liberals crushed the NDP and Conservatives in the last election was because they successfully outflanked the NDP from the left, appealing to a wide base of liberal-minded Ontarians and thus forming their strong party base. Kathleen Wynne was the first gay woman to lead her party to a majority victory, which was a clear social-left win, but the Liberal win was much more likely thanks to their platform.

While the Conservatives advocated for right-wing-style cuts in social programs — dressed up as a cleaning of government inefficiencies — the Liberals went strong to the left, creating a detailed and expansive policy platform that hit the biggest issues from multiple angles that they knew would resonate with Ontarians. Meanwhile, the NDP seemingly tried to find somewhere in the middle to stand and they got left on the sideline while the Liberals cleaned house and won a firm majority in the legislature. A comparison of the parties’ policy positions in 2014 can be found here by CP24 and here by the CBC.

Interestingly enough, Horwath’s platform in 2014 was only nine pages long and was uninterestingly titled “Andrea Horwath’s Plan that Makes Sense.” Its first position was to “respect your tax dollars,” which is a position that the Conservatives have run with this election cycle and that position was one of only five. Clearly, the NDP ran an uninspiring campaign and they got an uninspiring turnout. In 2018 however, they learned their lesson and changed their tune completely, with the Ontario NDP chief of staff saying himself about the campaign, “it’s about forming a government, not an opposition.”

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1600"] The NDP’s official party platform document in 2014, with a lacking amount of substance.[/caption]

So, if left-wing policies are the clear solution to getting voter support in Ontario and more broadly Canada, why is a candidate like Doug Ford — the leader of the Conservatives who have no official party platform — getting so much support? Why was he the firm frontrunner for months? The answer to that question is nuanced, but it hinges on the fact that Ford is an anti-establishment, drain-the-swamp-styled candidate.

Historically, candidates on both the right and left of the political spectrum have used populism as a means to get into power, and that’s because it works. While Ford and the Conservatives have a scattered collection of ideas that kind of form a platform, they have used rhetorical generalities and Ford’s personality to propel their campaign, with the front page of their website focusing on an arbitrary “pledge to vote.” While successful for a while, as evidenced by the polling mentioned earlier, this approach began to fizzle as the NDP swooped in with specific ideas and a firm, confident plan.

Of course, only the final results of the election will be able to tell and there are still a lot of things that could happen in the next two weeks. If there’s anything to be taken away from this election however, it’s that strong, specific economic populism is a powerful counter to right-wing identity politics and populism. While there is certainly criticism to be had of the NDP, with regards to their plan for the deficit for example, the party has planted themselves firmly as the party of substance, ideas, and honesty.

In a time where Ontario residents are dealing with extremely high hydro costs, a capacity crisis in the healthcare system and increasing tuition and student loan debt, honesty and substance mean a lot to the average voter.

There is a considerable possibility that the NDP will form government in Ontario for the first time in nearly 25 years. The Liberals at this point are just hanging on and while the Conservatives certainly have a chance at winning, the current trend in the polls should do more than just scare them.

It’s an exciting and important time in Ontario and it’s a great opportunity for politicians and their campaigns to watch how substantive, left-wing politics perform in the face of a socially right-wing populist.

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