The low point in the Ontario Liberals’ election campaign was in late May, when the party sent a person in a chicken suit to dance outside the campaign offices of Progressive Conservative candidates who had skipped out on their local riding debates. It was the type of gimmick that seems clever and hilarious to those who walk around wearing partisan earmuffs, and awkward and embarrassing to just about everyone else (with the exception of the person wearing the chicken suit, who hopefully at least got paid).
The message behind the stunt was actually a legitimate one – that local PC candidates are too “chicken” to show up and defend their government’s record – but the delivery was off-brand for a party whose campaign message was all about voting for a “responsible and competent” alternative. Professor Clucksworth flapping his wings outside Stan Cho’s campaign office doesn’t exactly convey the idea that the Liberals are the grown-up government-in-waiting.
On Thursday, Ontarians decided to stick with the government they’ve had for the past four years, chickens and all. The province handed PC Leader Doug Ford his second majority mandate, with Andrea Horwath’s NDP again elected as the Official Opposition and the Ontario Liberals trailing badly in third. Steven Del Duca, who was elected by his party in 2020 to bring it back from the dead, failed to win his own seat in Vaughan-Woodbridge, and resigned as leader later that night. It was an abysmal result for the Liberals by every measure.
Had this provincial election been one year earlier, Ontario would likely be looking at a very different result. Not only had Mr. Ford’s pandemic bump largely worn off by June, 2021, but Ontarians were seething after his government failed to react to the oncoming third COVID-19 wave, and then overcorrected spectacularly. But a year is a long time for Ontarians to maintain that level of rage, and it’s a difficult task for someone like Mr. Del Duca to try to solicit those same emotions now, when life is mostly back to normal and Mr. Ford has become so cuddly that even unions are endorsing his party.
Indeed, that has been the challenge for Mr. Del Duca this entire campaign: How do you make the case for change when, generally speaking, people are actually feeling pretty good?
The Liberals never could find their message over the past 28 days. Their platform, named “A Place to Grow,” included all sorts of big-spending promises, but with Mr. Ford making all sorts of big-spending promises of his own, the two parties’ platforms started to muddle together. Indeed, the major offerings from the Liberals became indistinguishable from those of the Conservatives.
So Mr. Del Duca went for soda-pop pledges: promises that are popular, easy to sell and generally come with no nutritional value. He promised temporary buck-a-fare transit, ignoring that accessibility and service – not necessarily cost – are the biggest barriers to transit usage in the province. He said his party would eliminate the HST on prepared food under $20; he would work with the federal government to ban handguns in the province (a promise since made mostly obsolete by the federal government’s recent announcement) and make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory in schools. Days after Toronto Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner was carjacked at gunpoint, Mr. Del Duca announced a Liberal government would strike a task force to tackle carjacking and gang violence.
The thread Mr. Del Duca tried to weave at each of these announcements was that his party would be the one to restore responsible governance, but the cheap and gimmicky nature of the promises (culminating, of course, with the chicken suit) seemed to contradict what he was saying. How could he at once urge Ontarians to vote for thoughtful and prudent Liberal governance, and then try to sell them on a plan for a carjacking task force that was obviously conceived on a whim in reaction to the news?
The Liberals now have four more years to nail down what, exactly, their party can offer to Ontarians. Their hope may be that Mr. Ford torpedoes his reputation all on his own during his second mandate, but the PC Leader has proven he is nothing if not resilient. The only thing the Liberals have proven, meanwhile, is that they’re no more electable than they were in 2018.