When the political going gets tough, change the channel.

The latest example is the Ontario PC effort to open a new COVID-19 shift the blame front to counter the widespread criticism of the Tories’ latest illogical lockdown tactics.

How else to explain the sudden drumbeat of Conservative attacks on the federal government for its alleged failure to lockdown the borders and keep out variants of concern?

After weeks serving as a political punching bag for its failure to act, and fearing further polling deterioration, the Ford government has begun to strike a proactive stance on other COVID-19 matters. It has lowered eligibility age and opened popup vaccination clinics in hotspots and essential service workplaces; it has raised the prospect of requesting U.S. vaccination of essential Canadian workers who cross into Michigan daily. 

Although there is lingering criticism that these steps could have been taken months ago, the likely public relief that something is finally happening should serve to stabilize Tory support.

The provincial Tories need only point for reassurance to Boris Johnson’ electoral resurrection last week. Despite outrage over Johnson’s initial mishandling of COVID-19, and the ongoing “cash for curtains” scandal, his administration’s successful distribution of vaccines and preparation for the UK’s return to some sense of normalcy have delivered Conservative gains in local elections.

Conversely, further voter volatility in Ontario will be triggered by any future government pandemic missteps.

With a provincial election looming in 2022, Ontario’s political parties will use the opening phase of the year-long campaign to test drive different ways to “frame the ballot question.”

The Conservatives have already successfully tampered with the political playing field. The recently passed Bill 254, Protecting Ontario’s Election Act 2021, strictly limits the amount of third-party advertising during the 12-month lead up to the vote. 

The Bill also raises political contribution limits, reinforcing the natural advantage any government in power has to raise funds.

The first stanzas of the political election chorus will likely play out along the following lines.

Expect both the government and the Official Opposition to train more fire on the third place Liberals. Recent opinion polls suggest that the provincial Liberals have regained voter appeal, mostly as a result of government missteps and a lacklustre Opposition performance by NDP Leader Horwath. The relative popularity of the federal Liberals also contributes to some transference of support.

The pandemic has overturned most of the Conservative policy platform (lowering the deficit, reducing government involvement in the economy, wrestling control of the healthcare and education systems, protecting individual freedom); the PCs’ best hope for resurgence aligns with gaining credit for mass vaccination distribution and the opening of the economy and society. 

Thematically, the PCs will explore which attacks on the federal government, a time-tested technique, will play best. They will continue to associate the third place Liberals with scandals of the Wynne regime. Given Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has not yet made a lasting impression on voters and his self-admitted lack of charisma, I anticipate that the Conservatives will launch more negative attacks against him, searching for one that will stick in the public’s mind.

In keeping with the approach of the Ford government’s first term, the PCs will repeat the “never apologize, never say you are sorry” mantra that both Trump and Boris Johnson have used successfully.

The NDP remain mindful that even a future minority government result could lead to their relegation to third place. In their own self-interest, they have to spend as much time attacking the Liberals as they do the government. With the Greens also nipping at their heels, the NDP face their own multi front battle.

The NDP will hope to break through with two primary messages. The first deals with the lack of competence of Ford’s administration, pointing to its disastrous decisions on long-term care, support for essential workers and specifics like paid sick leave.

The second will be to tar the provincial Liberals with their failure to address a number of the issues when they were in government. This shifting the blame strategy works less the longer the Liberals have been out of power.

Like the NDP, the Liberals will hammer home messages about whether Premier Ford is up to the challenge of leading the next government. The PCs won in 2018 because of a combination of the attractiveness of Mr. Ford’s candidacy and the public desire to get rid of an unpopular government; the PCs’ prospects in 2022 are tied intimately to public perceptions about Mr. Ford.

While the Greens have been effectively led by Mr. Schreiner, they remain caught in a policy competition between the Liberals and the NDP over environment policies that remain their bread and butter attraction.

The prospects for the anti-Ford vote to coalesce in Ontario, and a concurrent mood shift in a time for change, will become clearer over the next few months of campaigning.

Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.

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