Former provincial cabinet minister Janet Ecker looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic will effect the Conservatives come election time.
For Ontario, the past year has been pretty well all COVID all the time. And despite fervent efforts and wishes to the contrary, it looks like COVID will dominate our lives well into 2021. The challenges this presents for the provincial government as it ramps up for the 2022 election are formidable.
Premier Doug Ford entered the March pandemic lockdown looking like a one-term wonder. Serious government missteps during his first year had driven his popularity ratings into the basement. But his COVID-focused daily press conferences demonstrated a much more competent and personable leader than had previously been on display. His genuine concern and folksy style soon turned him into one of the most popular political leaders in the country.
But that was then.
When the expected second wave of the virus hit in the fall, the government seemed far less sure-footed, despite learning from the spring and the relative respite over the summer.
The Premier doubled down on his support for chief public health officer, Dr. David Williams, despite widespread calls for his replacement. Outbreaks in long term care homes continue at an alarming rate. The so-called “science-based” metrics that were supposed to guide lock down decisions seem anything but. Frustrated small business owners, after investing scarce resources to follow public health rules and protect their customers found themselves still subject to various shut downs while big box competitors stayed open.
Part of any re-election pitch is to brag about what the government has done or handled well during the previous four years. And Ford does have a good story to tell on several files, e.g. the speed with which much needed transit projects are getting underway.
However, it will be tough to gain attention for such wins if the litmus test for government competence remains how well COVID-19 was handled.
A well-used tactic by governments of all political stripes to attract voters’ attention at election time is to spend money on popular initiatives. Unfortunately, the previous Liberal administration left Ontario with serious debt. Coupled with the vast sums of cash needed to fight the virus and support recovery efforts, there is virtually no room to launch ambitious new initiatives and still effectively manage the debt.
Economic performance is another critical success factor for any government’s re-election. While some sectors have profited from the pandemic, the small business and retail sector have been decimated by pandemic lockdowns, despite various federal and provincial government support programs. It is difficult to predict how or if those jobs can return or how quickly they will do so.
A significant contributor to the economy is the culture and tourism industry which has also been basically shut down. While government support efforts are beginning, they may be too little and too late to save many organizations or events and preserve their economic contribution.
Another key driver of voter behaviour revolves around how well parents think their children are doing in school. Their experiences have been decidedly mixed. While there are stories of individual teachers going above and beyond for their students, teacher unions can be counted on to raise anxiety or cause further disruption in pursuit of their political agendas.
And finally, there is the human factor. A successful pre-writ campaign, followed by the actual election campaign, require effectively a seven-day-a-week commitment. Yet the Premier, his advisors and cabinet and most of caucus, have already been working literally flat out for months. After the intense, non-stop, high-pressure environment they have endured since the spring lockdown, will they have the energy reserves to conduct a winning campaign? It will be a near run thing.
Janet Ecker is a former Ontario Finance Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Community and Social Services and Government House Leader in the governments of Premier Mike Harris and Premier Ernie Eves. After her political career, she served as the founding CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, a public-private partnership dedicated to building Toronto region into an international financial centre. She currently sits on a number of corporate and non-profit boards, agencies and advisory committees.
Ms. Ecker received the Order of Canada for her public service contributions and was recognized as one of the “Most Influential People in the World’s Financial Centres” by Financial Centres International. She also received a “Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award” from the Women’s Executive Network and the Richard Ivey School of Business, among other awards. She is also one of the founders of Equal Voice, a national, multi-partisan organization working to elect more women.