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Ontario survey shows rise in support for Liberals a year out from election

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is pictured in the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Tuesday May 30 , 2017.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After months of weighty policy shifts by Premier Kathleen Wynne, Ontarians appear to be warming up to their unloved Liberal government, according to a new poll from the Innovative Research Group.

The long-governing Liberals have trailed the opposition Progressive Conservatives in a number of polls since last summer – but with less than a year before the next provincial election, the gap between has closed and they are almost tied in public support, according to pollster Greg Lyle; 30 per cent of Ontarians say they would vote PC compared with 27 per cent who would vote Liberal.

The poll follows a number of feel-good announcements in April and May in which Ms. Wynne announced a tax on foreign buyers to cool an overheated housing market, the move to a $15 minimum wage, a balanced budget with a new pharmacare plan, a basic-income pilot project and a 25-per-cent cut to hydro bills.

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Former Liberal heavyweights have suggested in recent months that the party could be staring at defeat next summer if Ms. Wynne stays on as leader. However, while Ms. Wynne remains unpopular with the majority of Ontarians, Mr. Lyle says his polling shows paths for the Liberals to win again. By next summer, the Grits will have been in power for 15 years.

"What we're seeing is that the pool of people open to the Liberals is starting to move," Mr. Lyle told The Globe and Mail. "That doesn't mean that they've got them, but they've got a lead in party identification and the number of people open to considering them is growing."

Despite lagging in the polls, the Liberal brand remains the most popular in Ontario, with 34 per cent of those polled identifying as Liberals. The governing party's base has also grown over the past few months, with 25 per cent of Ontarians disagreeing that its time to change government – nearly equal to the 27 per cent who say they are hostile with the government.

The Liberals are also in the lead across much of the Greater Toronto Area, after months of wobbly support in the party's seat-rich heartland. The Tories lead everywhere else in Ontario, with commanding leads in southwestern and south-central Ontario.

Since November, the Liberals' base support has grown, while the number of Ontarians mad at the government has shrunk. That's good news for Ms. Wynne, according to Mr. Lyle – the pollster for former Tory premier Mike Harris.

Anger directed at Ms. Wynne has also dropped. While she ranks third when asked who would make the best premier, after PC Leader Patrick Brown and the NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, the number of people angry at the Premier has dropped five points to 41 per cent. Admittedly, that's still quite unpopular, according to Mr. Lyle.

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While the numbers are improving somewhat for Ms. Wynne, Mr. Lyle said he was surprised by the incremental increase. "What's striking to me is that the policies were so dramatic and the gains have been relatively so small," he said.

What may account for the discrepancy, Mr. Lyle said, is the government's inability to form a narrative that has gained currency among Ontarians. While the government's announcements on housing and minimum wage have been well regarded, it hasn't led to a more cohesive story. In an interview with The Globe in June, Ms. Wynne summed up that narrative in one word: "Fairness."

And while Mr. Brown's party might be ahead in the polls, more than half of Ontarians say they don't know enough about him to form an opinion. That's a problem also facing Ms. Horwath, as an increasing number of Ontarians have said they don't know much about her, either.

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