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2018 Ontario General Election: why did Ontario’s voters elect Doug Ford?

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Ontario’s voters took to the polls in June to express their dissatisfaction with the Liberal Party’s governance under Kathleen Wynne, expelling her for Conservative populist and successful businessman Doug Ford into the premiership with an impressive majority.

A few days before the 2018 Ontario General Election, Liberal Party leader and premiership incumbent Kathleen Wynne’s forthcoming loss of the party’s fifteen-year stronghold on the province was all but confirmed.

Less than a week before polling day, the soon-to-be-outgoing premier was conceding defeat, giving an emotional speech in which she told voters she had no idea who the next premier would be, but that she was “pretty sure it won’t be me.”

The speech was a response to damning polls that suggested the Liberals may be lucky to walk away from the election with a single seat in the Legislative Assembly, an outcome which once seemed improbable but was now becoming all too real a possibility.

Wynne took to the podium to deliver a last-ditch plea for voters to elect enough Liberal MPs to ensure a majority government couldn’t be formed by populist Conservative candidate Doug Ford or New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath.

History tells us this plea was too little too late. Ford went on to win 76 of the 124 seats on offer in the legislature, securing a majority government and becoming the 26th premier of the province of Ontario.

Kathleen Wynne couldn’t have had a more humiliating fall from grace. After the huge success of the 2014 election, where she became both the first female Premier of Ontario, and the first openly LGBT Premier in Canada, the manner of her demise was significant.

The loss not only ousted Wynne from the premiership, but consigned her party to its most devastating defeat in its 161-year history, with seats reduced from a majority 55 to just 7, one less than it needed to maintain official party status.

It’s not hard to see why Ontario’s voters turned their backs on Wynne so ruthlessly. For some time, there had been growing apathy for a party that had been governing the province for 15 straight years. Many voters felt the time was right for a change.

Much of this apathy stemmed from an air of arrogance that has been hanging around the Liberals for years, most notably since Wynne took over as leader, and a failure to acknowledge key political mistakes the party had made.

In truth, a Liberal victory never looked on the cards. By the time Wynne delivered her concession speech, it was clear those at the top of the party had realised just how much voter confidence it had lost, and that there was little chance of competing.

The Official Opposition was formed by the NDP, which saw impressive gains in the Legislative Assembly since 2014, and whose leader Andrea Horwath was every bit a contender for the premiership as Ford. For many it was a surprise to see her lose out.

So why did voters put their faith in Doug Ford in such huge numbers? Ford had long been dismissed as the ‘controversial’ candidate, with a number of high-profile stories, including being sued by his late brother’s wife, arising while he was still on the campaign trail.

Ford’s brother was the infamous Rob Ford, former Mayor of Toronto, whose troubled legacy still remains fresh in many Ontarians’ minds. Ford’s connections to a chaotic family were the subject of much discussion, often threatening to render him unelectable.

But as Liberals shied away from directly attacking Ford’s person, they instead succeeded in bringing greater attention to his policies. A slew of campaign ads questioning what effect a Ford premiership would have on working-class Ontarians did little to help the cause.

There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that Wynne and the Liberals were guilty of losing the election, rather than Doug Ford doing anything particularly impressive to win it. But that’s not to say Ford didn’t play his part.

It might be an over-simplification to suggest that the Conservative win was further evidence of a distinct shift in global political mood, veering towards conservative austerity and away from liberal values, often seen as harmful to business and the economy.

It’s true, however, that the Liberals pre-election budget proposing billions of dollars in new spending for free childcare and expanded coverage for dental care was largely seen as extravagant. Ford, a successful businessman, considered this to be excessive.

Both Liberal and NDP platforms forecasted at least another half-decade of deficits before the economy would improve, but Ford and the Conservatives stuck their neck out by promising just a single year of deficits until spending was brought under control.

kathleen-wynne-former-ontario-premier
Kathleen Wynne couldn’t have had a more humiliating fall from grace.

Ford’s fiscal confidence struck a chord with voters. Having already shown himself to be an astute businessman, his plan to conduct an audit on what was considered a free-spending Liberal government cemented this reputation amongst his supporters.

As Ontario’s populist candidate, and one with the kind of slim political credentials that had many people giving him no chance of winning, Ford spent plenty of time with the people of the province during his campaign, determined to win their trust and their votes.

In an election largely recognised for voters being emotionally rather than ideologically influenced, Ford took full advantage of a disillusioned voter base. Anywhere was up in comparison to the Liberals, and Ford put himself in the best position to capitalize.

In the run-up to the election, the Huffington Post published a poll that suggested around half of voters were motivated by blocking the party they didn’t like rather than supporting one that they did. The Liberals were the ones to block.

With Liberal votes effectively split between Ford and Horwath then, it was little more than a matter of staying in the race and maintaining visibility with the people, something Ford did with aplomb.

It remains to be seen how far Doug Ford will succeed in delivering on his ambitious campaign promises, but what has already become clear is that the Liberals didn’t do enough to retain voter confidence. It will likely take a long time for the party to recover.

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