Ontario’s provincial election is in June, but it’s already campaign season

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When the question period resumed in the Ontario legislature this week for the first time since spring, there was one notable absence: Premier Doug Ford.

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Mr. Ford was 700 kilometers north of Queens Park in Timmins, Ont., instead of sitting in his front row seat. Between hospital visits and visits with front-line workers and business owners, he introduced the city’s mayor, George Pirie, as the Progressive Conservative Party’s new election candidate.

Timmins’ seat, currently held by longtime New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson, is one of several targeted by the Ontario PC Party in the upcoming June provincial election.

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Even though the votes are eight months away, the campaigning season has begun.

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The PC party and the official opposition New Democrats this week released radio, television and digital advertisements the third-placed Liberals are expected to unveil within weeks.

The timing of the ads means they are not subject to spending limits that take effect in early November, when the official “pre-writing” period begins. So the province is likely to be bombarded by waves next month as parties begin to build their narratives for the June 2 ballot.

An upbeat PC Party ad presents Mr. Ford as a leader who says “yes” to infrastructure, roads and building homes. “Politicians are famous for finding reasons to say no. That’s not me,” Mr. Ford says in the new TV spot. Others go after his political opponents, one of whom is trying to portray NDP leader Andrea Horvath as a career politician who says one thing and does another. A third ad is dedicated to linking Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, who was a cabinet minister under Premier Kathleen Wynne, to the unpopular Liberal government that was defeated in 2018.

The new NDP ads, unveiled on Friday, appear to be an attempt to reintroduce the party’s longtime leader, Ms. Horvath, to Ontarians. A TV spot showed scenes of his meeting with voters, pledging to better care for seniors and safe schools. It calls him “a fighter for the people”.

NDP is also issuing two negative advertisements. One says Mr Ford brought in the lockdown to keep big-box stores open but close local businesses, and protect profits for nursing home operators despite the crisis in senior care. “For the little boy? Please. Doug Ford. Here for his friends. Not for you.”

The other ad, which the NDP’s campaign director Michael Balgus said, would be used in “targeted digital purchases” aimed at Liberal supporters, del Duca says was Ms Vinay’s “right hand”. It was unveiled in the summer.

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Mr Del Duca has promised an ad of his own within a couple of weeks. But the Liberal leader suggested that his campaign be different and avoid following the “same old playbook” as the PC and the NDP, which he had used in the past.

He told reporters that Ontarians are tired not only of the pandemic, but of the way politics has been done so far. Mr Del Duca said his upcoming ad would not elicit a kind response from others: “It will be positive. It will be based on ideas. It will not be filled with personal attacks against other political leaders.”

Whatever tone the Liberals set in the campaign, the party – nearly wiped out in the 2018 election – is likely to have much less cash to work with than its rivals.

The NDP says it has raised more than $2 million so far in 2021, mainly in small donations from about 70,000 donors averaging $29. The NDP says it has more individual donors than all other parties combined, and this adds to an already existing war chest that is worth upwards of $5 million. That means, the party’s Mr. Balgas told reporters on Friday that the Ontario NDP would run the biggest election campaign in its history.

PC says he has raised $6.1 million this year, but his efforts – which include a $1,000-a-top fundraising event with the premier and other cabinet ministers – have attracted political criticism. In contrast, the Liberals have raised about $600,000 in 2021, according to Election Ontario numbers cited by the NDP on Friday. The Liberals would not release their internal figures, but noted that they had paid off their $10 million campaign debt from 2018.

Opposition parties have criticized the timing of Mr Ford’s visit to Timmins – after his government prorogued the legislature during a federal election campaign, delaying his return by two weeks. He accused the prime minister of avoiding investigation amid the pandemic. But Environment Minister David Piccini told reporters this week that Mr Ford believes there is more to the province than the Greater Toronto Area, with a focus on northern and rural riding.

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“Yes, we are also working to support candidates who have the courage to put forward our name, as do all parties,” said Mr. Picini. “It is important that we are very clear with the Ontarians about the choice before them.”

Timmins Seat is one of the strongest and longest lasting NDP rides. Mr Ford’s government is also attracting unionized and blue-collar activists who have traditionally voted for the NDP, mainly in southern Ontario. The battle for votes in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area, where federal liberals recently took the most seats, is expected to be a battle between provincial liberals and Mr Ford’s PC.

Jonathan Rose, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University who specializes in political communication and advertising, said that at this stage, Mr. Ford is a known commodity, while Mr. Del Duca is not, and that PC advertising has the potential to frame the Liberal leader. Let’s try. From the very beginning.

“Now it’s a smart strategy to both have a blank slate and paint on the image you want the voters to be…,” he said.

Nevertheless, Prof. Rose doesn’t think ad campaigns will have a long-term impact this debut.

“They’re really trying to put a stake in the ground, to let interested voters and media organizations know what they’re going to talk about during the campaign,” he said. “So they’re really just forebodings.”

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