When Question Period resumed in the Ontario legislature this week for the first time since the spring, there was one notable absence: Premier Doug Ford.
Instead of being in his front-row seat, Mr. Ford was 700 kilometres north of Queen’s Park in Timmins, Ont. It was there, in between a hospital tour and visits with front-line workers and business owners, that he introduced the city’s mayor, George Pirie, as the Progressive Conservative Party’s new election candidate.
The seat in Timmins, currently held by long-time New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson, is one of several the Ontario PC Party is targeting in the upcoming June provincial election.
Even though the vote is eight months away, campaign season has begun.
The PC Party and the Official Opposition New Democrats released radio, television and digital advertisements this week, with the third-place Liberals expected to unveil some within weeks.
The timing of the advertisements means they are not subject to spending limits that take effect in early November, when the official “pre-writ” period begins. So the province’s airwaves are likely to be bombarded over the next month as the parties begin forming their narratives for the June 2 ballot.
An upbeat PC Party ad frames Mr. Ford as a leader who says “yes” to building infrastructure, roads and houses. “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, with one trying to paint NDP Leader Andrea Horwath 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 Ms. Horwath, the party’s long-time leader, to Ontarians. A TV spot features shots of her meeting with voters while pledging better care for seniors and safer schools. It calls her “a fighter for people.”
The NDP is also rolling out two negative ads. One says Mr. Ford brought in lockdowns that let big-box stores stay open but closed local businesses, and protected profits for operators of nursing homes despite a crisis in senior care. “For the little guy? Please. Doug Ford. Here for his buddies. Not for you.”
The other ad, which NDP campaign director Michael Balagus said will be used in a “targeted digital buy” aimed at Liberal supporters, says Mr. Del Duca was Ms. Wynne’s “right-hand man.” It was unveiled in the summer.
Mr. Del Duca has promised an ad of his own within a couple of weeks. But the Liberal Leader suggested his campaign would be different and avoid following the “same old playbook” as the PCs and the NDP, one he acknowledged using in the past.
He told reporters Ontarians are tired not just from the pandemic, but from the way politics has been done up to now. Mr. Del Duca said his upcoming ad would not respond in kind to the others: “It will be positive. It will be ideas-based. It will not be full of personal attacks against other political leaders.”
Whatever tone the Liberals set in the campaign, the party – nearly wiped out in the 2018 election – appears 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, primarily in small donations averaging $29 from nearly 70,000 donors. That’s more individual donors than all the other parties combined, the NDP says, and it adds to a pre-existing war chest that tops $5-million. It means, the party’s Mr. Balagus told reporters on Friday, that the Ontario NDP will mount the largest election campaign in its history.
The PCs say they have raised $6.1-million this year, but their efforts – which have included $1,000-a-head fundraising events with the Premier and other cabinet ministers – have attracted political criticism. The Liberals, by contrast, have raised about $600,000 in 2021, according to Elections Ontario numbers cited by the NDP on Friday. The Liberals would not release their internal figures, but noted they had paid off their $10-million campaign debt from 2018.
The opposition parties criticized the timing of Mr. Ford’s trip to Timmins – which came after his government prorogued the legislature during the federal election campaign, delaying its return by two weeks. They accused the Premier of hiding from scrutiny amid the pandemic. But Environment Minister David Piccini told reporters this week Mr. Ford recognizes there’s more to the province than the Greater Toronto Area, with a focus on Northern and rural ridings.
“Yes, we’re also working to support candidates who have the courage to put our names forward, as all parties do,” Mr. Piccini said. “It’s important that we’re very clear with Ontarians on the choice that’s before them.”
The Timmins seat is one of the strongest and longest-standing NDP ridings. Mr. Ford’s government has also been courting unionized and blue-collar workers who have traditionally voted NDP, primarily in Southern Ontario. The battle for votes in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area, where the federal Liberals recently picked up the most seats, is expected to be a battle between the provincial Liberals and Mr. Ford’s PCs.
Jonathan Rose, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University who specializes in political communication and advertising, said at this stage, Mr. Ford is a known commodity, while Mr. Del Duca is not, and the PC ads attempt to frame the Liberal Leader early on.
“Now that’s both a smart strategy in that you’ve got a blank slate and you paint on that the image you want voters to have … but it’s bad strategy because it reminds voters to seek out information about this leader that they didn’t know,” he said.
Still, Prof. Rose doesn’t think the ad campaigns will have long-term impact this early on.
“They’re really just attempts to plant a stake in the ground, to let interested voters and media organizations know what they’re going to be talking about during the campaign,” he said. “So they’re really just foreshadowing.”
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