Can Doug Ford make populism work in Ontario?


Ontario’s provincial election is shaping up to be a two-horse race.

Major polls this week show the Progressive Conservative party and Doug Ford holding the lead but  Andrea Horwath’s campaign for change is gaining ground as voters leave the fading Liberals and consider the front-runners. An Ipsos poll earlier this week pegged PC popular support at 40 percent, NDP surging to 35 percent and the Liberals languishing a distant third at 22 percent.

Two weeks into the campaign agriculture and food issues continue to fight for recognition. Peter Seemann, of Grassroots Public Affairs, says rural Ontario has a great role to play in everything from economic development to job creation, affordable housing, increased food security, and environmental stewardship. But giving voice to agriculture and rural issues remains a challenge, says Seemann who helped the Ontario Federation of Agriculture craft its “Producing Prosperity in Ontario” election campaign, which focuses on these five pillars.

Peter Seemann says the PC party will likely admit that some things have not gone as planned, “but the good news is that Mr. Ford is completely genuine. What you see is what you get.”

It’s fair to say that the Liberals have dismissed the importance of rural and agricultural issues to concentrate on its urban base of support. Doug Ford continues to stick to his populist approach and is tough to pin down other than his pronouncement that affordable housing could be built in Ontario’s Greenbelt, which was quickly retracted. Only the NDP have made some concrete proposals targeting agriculture and rural Ontario, including a promise to cut hydro delivery charges and spend $1 billion to bring broadband to rural Ontario.

When it comes to Ford, Ontario voters have seen little substance. He’s shelved the party platform and taken a populist approach: promising to fire the head of Hydro One and proclaiming he’ll cut the price of gas by 10 cents.

Can Ford withstand the scrutiny of the campaign? Can he make populism work in Ontario? Seemann says the Conservatives will likely admit that some things have not gone as planned, “but the good news is that Mr. Ford is completely genuine. What you see is what you get. That may turn some people off but there is an increasing number of voters that are tired of political language and rhetoric at a level they don’t understand and he has certainly tapped into that.”

To offset and complement Ford’s style, Seemann says the PC party has to get Ontarians to understand that there’s more to the party than Ford. He notes that the party is fielding many strong candidates and has an experienced caucus with a long list of rural representatives such as MPPs Lisa Thompson (Huron—Bruce), Steve Clark (Leeds—Grenville), and Sylvia Jones (Dufferin—Caledon).

While the NDP has vaulted into second place in the polls, questions remain whether they can sustain the momentum or if the realities of the Ontario political map stall Horwath’s movement. Much of the new-found NDP support has come at the expense of the Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government, which appears to have finally run out of political lives. Further gains will have come from PC strongholds in the 905 belt and areas of rural Ontario.

On June 7, whether it’s an open-length victory or a photo finish the election race will depend on Doug Ford’s ability to sell his brand of of populism to Ontarians.

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