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Shoetopia president Peter Mohr stands in his Waterloo store on March 28, 2018.

Globe and Mail

The Ontario Liberals will find it difficult to get the small business vote in the upcoming provincial election after various policy moves that owners say have hurt their bottom lines.

Soaring costs for hydro and labour under the current Kathleen Wynne government have many business owners considering voting for the Progressive Conservatives in the June election, even if it means choosing an untested leader whose policies are largely unknown.

PC leader Doug Ford has yet to release his election platform but has so far vowed to balance the province’s books and freeze the minimum wage at $14, ending the Liberals’ plan for it to increase to $15 next year.

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Both promises appeal to business owners who have been hit hard by higher costs that came with changes to Ontario’s employment laws, known as Bill 148, as well as surging hydro prices that resulted from the provincial government’s energy policies.

Some business owners are simply looking for a change after about 15 years of Liberal government rule in Ontario. “There is general Liberal government fatigue,” says Burkard Eberlein, a professor of public policy at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

He says some business owners have little choice but to vote PC as the Ontario Liberals take a more left-of-centre approach in their policies, including the wide-sweeping changes to the labour laws and several large spending measures introduced in the recent provincial budget that see the province return to a deficit position for the next six years.

“I would be nervous as a business owner,” says Mr. Eberlein. “This is a lot about uncertainty. With the Liberals, it’s the devil you know. With the Conservatives, they’ve been out of power for a very long time and there’s the unknown Doug Ford.”

Andrew Violi, president of Mellow Walk Footwear, a Toronto-based manufacturer, says he has some trepidation about Mr. Ford, a former city councillor who became a household name during his late brother Rob’s tumultuous term as mayor of Toronto.

Still, Mr. Violi, who is traditionally a Liberal supporter and voted for the party in the last provincial election, is “strongly leaning” towards voting PC in his Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park. His decision will largely depend on what Mr. Ford promises in his yet-to-be-released election platform.

“I feel the party under Premier Wynne is no longer friendly to business interests,” says Mr. Violi. He says Bill 148 cost his business an extra $250,000 this year, due largely to the hike in minimum wage. He’s also frustrated to hear the Ontario Liberals are planning to run a deficit.

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“Put all of those issues together, I join that chorus of people who say it’s probably time for a change in Ontario. I think there’s a strong appetite for another party with new ideas and a new perspective,” says Mr. Violi. “With a strong cabinet behind him, I believe Ford will be able to control government spending and move government back to the centre.”

Peter Mohr, owner of Shoetopia Footwear, which has stores in Fergus, Waterloo and Mount Forest, says he’s a “social conservative” who plans to vote PC in the election this spring, even though he, too, is a bit worried about Mr. Ford’s leadership and the lack of detail in his party platform so far.

“We aren’t electing Doug Ford, we are electing the PC party. I believe that is how the PCs need to win the election,” says Mr. Mohr. “My hope is that is if Doug Ford gets in, that he’ll be good for business.”

For Mr. Mohr, that means following through with talk about reducing spending and freezing the minimum wage. He’d also like to see the PCs cut the Liberal promise to hire 175 additional employment standards officers to enforce the Bill 148 changes, calling it an unnecessary expense.

However, not all business owners are moving towards the PCs. Dan Rishworth, owner of Toronto-based sporting goods retailer Enduro Sport, says he will support the Liberals despite his feeling that the PCs will be better for business.

“As much as I’m unhappy about the return to deficits and changes [with Bill 148] …. at the end of the day, all those things are small cuts for me. It’s not enough that I’m prepared to throw over a philosophy that I largely believe in, even if the execution of it has not been the way I would have like to have seen it rolled out,” says Mr. Rishworth, who lives and works in Ms. Wynne’s riding of Don Valley West in Toronto. “I think I have to hold my nose. That’s the bottom line.”

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Many business organizations across Ontario aren’t publicly taking sides in the election, but some acknowledge their members are frustrated with the current Liberal government’s policies and are looking for a change.

“The consensus from the small-business community is that these last few years there have been policies that are hurting businesses significantly,” says Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association.

He cites the rapid increase in the minimum wage, from $11.60 to $14 on Jan. 1, as well as surging hydro rates compared with some other provinces, as two main examples. “There hasn’t been any real offsets to support prosperity for businesses,” Mr. Elenis says.

Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie says his members, who live mostly in rural ridings, are “very frustrated” with the Ontario Liberals, citing “regulatory fatigue.”

“I know rural Ontario, by and large, is ready for a change,” says Mr. Currie. “Maybe they’re ready to vote for anyone but the current government … . June 7th will tell us that.”

Canada’s top entrepreneurs share their strategies for success at the 2018 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit. Full lineup and early-bird tickets available at tgam.ca/SBS18

After his tumultuous win as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, Doug Ford sets out to begin his campaign before the provincial election on June 7, 2018.
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