By Hershell Ezrin
What constitute the existential threats to a party remaining in power, since a generally agreed proposition is that governments lose elections, not that oppositions win them?
Is it a government’s failure to keep electoral promises, an inability to develop compelling policy options or a lack of competence in managing the government’s operations? How relevant is scandal in shaping voting intentions? How much is federal popularity translating into provincial results?
Has the era of COVID-19 changed the traditional political calculus?
In our age of “performative” politics, a term used to describe the impact of the “Trumpian” era, how valuable is the ability to remain in the media spotlight, good or bad, and the capacity to manage the expectations of a party’s most committed supporters?
These questions surfaced again last week with the release of two Ontario polls, as the parties enter the run-up year to the next provincial election.
A mid-April Abacus poll found the Ontario Liberals and PCs tied at 34%, with the NDP lagging behind. An earlier April Leger survey measuring satisfaction with the measures put in place to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by Canadian provincial governments reflected more problems for the Ontario PCs.
Leger noted that 38% of Ontarians were satisfied with the performance of the Ford administration in its COVID-19 response while 59% were not. Only the Alberta government fared worse.
Much of the Ontario angst can likely be traced to the government’s confusing and contradictory justifications for their stop and start lockdown plans. Lockdown fatigue and an inability to tamp down virus hotspots in the GTHA have also fed broader anxiety.
The inability to deliver quickly on the government’s hyperbole in its recent vaccination communications (loosely qualified statements such as anyone 18 or over in hotspot will get a vaccination), despite the best of intentions, has stoked further unease.
Media outlets’ legitimate recent focus on the significant differential between doses received and actually administered has inadvertently propped up unfounded theories undermining public health advice. Meanwhile, hospital clinics and other vaccination sites keep postponing appointments because of a lack of certainty in vaccine shipments.
Given that COVID-19 is the primary concern of most citizens these days, analysts might conclude that the tumble in the Ford government’s performance scores should flash a warning signal as Ontario enters the run-up to its next provincial election.
Or are they reading too much into the tea leaves?
Polls are snapshots at a specific point in time.
In this “tell me what you did for me today” phase of politics with COVID-19 as the 24/7 news cycle, the only certainty is to expect volatility and major swings in voter preference.
The Trudeau Liberals have themselves faced peaks and valleys in public support over the last year, with shifts swiftly related to different stages of their pandemic responses.
The same Leger survey organization had polled Ontario voters at the end of March 2021. They concluded that Ford’s PCs would win the most votes if elections were held “today”, despite some criticism they measured about their handling of the pandemic. The pollster also noted the stability of the PC support over the prior year; even opposition supporters gave the government relatively good marks for its handling of COVID-19 issues.
Their conclusion drawn was that making the next Ontario provincial election a referendum on government handling of the pandemic would not benefit the opposition.
Early on in 2021, the Ford government recognized its vulnerability to the vagaries of global supply chains for vaccines, and the vaccine envy of Canadians for its U.S. and British neighbours.
The province sought to inoculate itself initially by framing its pandemic challenge as the lack of federally supplied vaccines.
When this message no longer resonated credibly, the government focused its messages on positive developments. Ideology and Conservative budget orthodoxy went out the window in budget pronouncements as the government sought to reassure its stakeholders.
Cooperation with the Liberal federal government was back on the table, as Conservatives sought to align themselves with major federal investments and support programs for Ontario workers, schools, hospitals, broadband infrastructure and business.
As the fight against COVID-19 shifts to the implementation phase, provinces and their municipal creations bear the brunt of political scrutiny. Vaccination arrangements, stretched health care capabilities and the lack of paid sick leave support for essential workers are the primary focus. It is harder to shift blame. Other polls report that 47% of Ontarians grade the province’s vaccine arrangements poor or terrible, about the worst showing in Canada.
The brunt of the current public criticism seems to rest on the government’s failure to act quickly enough to respond to the emerging “third wave”, which had been predicted for several weeks by its own science table.
In a fixed electoral date system, every government seeks to generate as much positive news as it can in the narrow window when most voters make an electoral choice.
There is a lot of time left before Ontario’s election for the next phases of the pandemic drama to play out.
Insofar as COVID-19 affects voting intentions, the most important key for success will be for politicians to focus on delivering what they can manage and control, not what they dream of achieving.
Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.