Ontario's Opposition Leaders Should Avoid Giving Doug Ford More Ammunition

  • National Newswatch

With federal election speculation reaching a fever pitch these days, the media spotlight in Ontario has abruptly shifted away from Queen's Park to Ottawa after what can only be described as a calamitous year for Doug Ford's Conservative government. But just as many Ontario journalists were jumping on the summer election coverage bandwagon, something unusual happened in Ontario politics that attracted scarce media scrutiny.In late June, Ontario's major opposition leaders stated publicly that they would not, under any circumstances, prop up Doug Ford's Conservatives in a post-election minority government scenario next spring. In exclusive interviews with the Toronto Star's Martin Regg Cohn, NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca clearly signalled they would move to defeat a potential Ford minority government at the first available opportunity post-election. This open declaration from Ontario's opposition leaders ten months out from an election campaign is significant and unprecedented for three reasons.First, public opinion research consistently shows a minority government of some form is increasingly a possible outcome of next year's election (scheduled, according to legislation, for June 2, 2022). Second, political leaders rarely entertain hypothetical situations, and so Horwath and Del Duca's assertions are both newsworthy and politically risky. Third, and most importantly, Horwath and Del Duca's pledge to defeat a possible Ford minority government immediately following the next election could unintentionally arm a floundering Doug Ford with the political weapon he desperately needs to mobilize his fickle conservative base and secure unaligned swing voters toward a second majority victory.Ford's redeeming political weapon could be the credible threat of a centre-left coalition of parties defeating a democratically elected government so soon after an election – let's call it the 'coalition bogeyman' gambit. This manoeuvre is one that has been executed federally with considerable success, in spite of the fact that coalition governments in Canada are a legitimate and constitutionally viable option according to virtually all political scientists and constitutional scholars in this country. In fact, just last week, federal Conservative leader Erin O'Toole launched a desperate attempt to trial balloon public messaging arguing there aren't five choices in a looming federal election, but only two – 'Canada's Conservatives on one side and a Liberal-NDP-Green-Bloc Quebecois coalition on the other.'But one need only revisit the 2011 federal election campaign for an example of a Conservative leader who successfully utilized the 'coalition bogeyman' ruse to persuade otherwise unaligned voters into electing a Conservative government. After five years leading minority governments in Ottawa, Stephen Harper was on a mission to form a majority government in the 2011 federal election. Merely two years prior, Harper's political opponents had been severely wounded when the federal Liberal Party and NDP sought to form a minority coalition government with support from the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. While the prospect of a coalition government did not command strong public support, it nearly materialized in December 2008 only to be thwarted at the eleventh hour when Governor General Michaëlle Jean granted PM Harper the power to prorogue Parliament thereby circumventing the formation of a coalition government.With the 2008 coalition crisis still fresh in voter's minds, the risks of a coalition government were featured prominently in much of the Conservative Party's communications throughout the 2011 campaign. Stephen Harper and his chief campaign strategists took full advantage of the public's unfamiliarity and discomfort with the notion of a coalition government of centre-left parties – though constitutionally legitimate – taking office so soon after the global financial crisis that rocked Canada's economy. On the campaign trail, Harper repeatedly implored Canadians to elect a 'strong, stable, Conservative majority government' as the antidote to what he argued was a coalition of reckless, left-leaning parties determined to defeat his government at the first available opportunity if they did not have a majority in Parliament.Like he did at the time of the 2008 coalition crisis, Harper advanced deceitful claims pointing to the illegitimacy of coalition governments throughout the campaign and was ultimately rewarded with the first Conservative majority government in over 20 years. The strategy worked wonders and it was the support from Ontario voters that secured Harper's 2011 majority government. And while there were other factors that enabled Harper's majority victory, namely the complete collapse of the Liberal vote, political observers credit Harper's campaign quest to discredit the legitimacy of coalition governments as a central reason for his impressive victory.This political precedent is useful for a few reasons. With an election less than a year away, Doug Ford's Conservatives are at risk of being reduced to a minority government, if not defeated altogether. Although the Premier and the Tories have recovered somewhat from their abysmal polling numbers last spring at the height of the pandemic's third wave, Ford and his party remain well behind the robust support levels they enjoyed at the onset of the pandemic. Unable to run on their botched record of managing the pandemic's third wave and its aftermath, Ford and his team will increasingly look to how they can negatively frame their opponents in next spring's election. By publicly declaring their intention to defeat the Ford government at the first available opportunity in a minority scenario, Horwath and Del Duca have given Ford and his top strategists the ammunition they desire to paint their opponents as conspiring to defeat them through undemocratic means, regardless of how misleading this claim is.Stephen Harper's 2011 victory proved most voters are woefully unaware about the legitimacy and viability of coalition governments in this country. Harper exploited this widespread ignorance for political gain through convincing swing voters that coalition governments were too risky a proposition in times of great economic uncertainty. It's a strategy that Doug Ford and his top advisors, some of whom counselled the Conservative PM for years, will look to replicate in next spring's election.In early May, Kory Teneycke, a veteran Conservative strategist who played leadership roles in Stephen Harper's Ottawa, was reappointed as Doug Ford's campaign manager – a role he held in the winning 2018 campaign that swept Ford into power. An extremely talented political operative, Teneycke is a former executive at the now defunct Sun News Network who served as Harper's director of communications during the 2008 coalition crisis. Teneycke and others, such as Nick Kouvalis, who also enjoys strong federal Conservative ties, will inevitably play a key role in painting Doug Ford's opponents as coalition partners with ulterior motives.While their pronouncements were principled and undeniably popular among each party's progressive base, they exposed Horwath and Del Duca to needless political risk that Ontario's Conservatives will seize upon come election time. Such statements can also jeopardize support from more centrist voters who typically vote Liberal, but could be swayed to support Doug Ford again as a means to avoid a potential coalition government.Refusing to take the bait from the media on hypothetical questions around the prospect of a Ford minority government does not preclude Horwath and Del Duca from defeating a potential Ford minority government if they do not deem its throne speech or budget to be acceptable to a majority of Ontarians. Like Ontario Liberal Leader David Peterson and NDP Leader Bob Rae who united as political rivals in 1985 to defeat Frank Miller's minority Conservative government and sign a Liberal-NDP Accord, Horwath and Del Duca could chart a similar path to dislodge Ford's Conservatives if they felt the government had lost the confidence of the Legislature.As Ontario emerges from the deep depths of the pandemic over the coming months, and as next year's election campaign ramps up, Ford will increasingly appeal to Ontarians for their support painting his government as the embodiment of the stability they yearn for in a post-pandemic world. Like Harper before him, Ford won't hesitate to demonize his political opponents and promulgate deceitful claims around the illegitimacy of coalition governments in a desperate plea for a second majority mandate. Two weeks ago, Horwath and Del Duca inadvertently gave Doug Ford a tool to exploit for his re-election. They must not make this blunder again for the political stakes are simply too high.Andrew Perez is a Toronto-based communications and public affairs professional who has volunteered for Liberal parties at the federal and provincial levels. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewaperez.