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public opinion

Mayoral candidate Rob Ford prepares for a debate in Toronto on Sept. 7, 2010.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The growing anger of Toronto voters that is fuelling Rob Ford's populist campaign for mayor highlights a volatile political mood in Ontario that could ripple into provincial and federal politics.

How this frustration plays out in the coming months carries implications for the federal political scene, where southern Ontario's ridings in and around Toronto will have a major say in deciding which party forms the next government.

According to pollsters and political door-knockers at various levels, Ontario voters are taking a different look at their politicians and are ready to vent.


The shift can be seen in declining support for the Ontario Liberal government and in the rise of populist conservative Rob Ford in the race for Toronto mayor.

Some see it a growing desire for small government at a time when families have been forced to cut back. Others see a bloodthirsty "throw the bums out" mentality that has little to do with ideology.

"It's almost not what [Mr. Ford]rsquo;s talking about. It's what he represents, and it's just change," said Toronto-based pollster Darrell Bricker. "It's an angry public throwing a hand grenade, and how it's going to blow it up, they haven't really thought that through. They just want to blow it up right now."

Mr. Bricker, the president of Ipsos Reid, said the mood in Canada's largest city reminds him of the sentiment that led to the Tory sweep of Mike Harris after years of Liberal and NDP rule in Ontario.

"What's going on with Ford is very significant," he said of the colourful and controversial right-wing councillor, whom polls show has a good chance of winning the Toronto mayoralty race. "What he represents is absolutely what people want, and we saw a very similar thing back in 1995 in the province of Ontario when people snapped back against what they saw as a government that went way too far left, by bringing in Mike Harris."


According to this theory, Mr. Ford has tapped in to voter resentment in Toronto's populous suburbs, where some are feeling ignored by the folks downtown at City Hall and Queen's Park. This sentiment is less pronounced at the provincial level, said Mr. Bricker.

Ipsos Reid released a survey this week of 1,000 Canadians showing the Conservatives three points ahead of the Liberals nationally. However in Ontario, the Liberals lead the Tories 41 per cent to 33 per cent.

Federal polls have not changed dramatically but Mr. Bricker says the federal parties should be watching out for signs of the kind of anger that has driven the pro-Ford mood in Toronto and declining numbers for the Ontario Liberals.

"The interesting contradiction in all of this is the federal Tories and how the incumbency card plays for them, and that's a little murkier," he said. "But the longer they stay around, they start suffering the same issues [Ontario Premier]Dalton McGuinty's suffering: accumulated cuts and bruises."

Political strategist Jaime Watt, who played senior roles in the Harris campaigns of 1995 and 1999, said there is clearly a changing mood among Ontario voters, but cautions that it is too early to explain it or predict how far it will spread.

"It's a bit like an approaching storm," he said. "I actually don't think people have got it truly figured out, including Mr. Ford."


While an anti-incumbency mood would hurt Stephen Harper's federal Tories, there is opportunity for Conservatives to focus on the small-government, low-taxes message that brought them to power and is also fuelling Mr. Ford's success.

Harris/Decima pollster Bruce Anderson says the problem for the Conservatives is that they've been bumped off that message and have been on the defensive for months. The change he sees federally is that the Conservatives are no longer viewed as a new government, but rather an incumbent to be assessed on its record.

A summer fending off attacks on the census changes and G20 costs, and a battle with police over the gun registry has not helped the Conservatives, he said, adding that the firearms debate is likely why urban women are moving away from the Tories while the government preaches to the converted in rural Canada.

"Women were generally always more tentative about Mr. Harper when they worry that he was being too partisan or too ideological," he said. "I think [the Conservatives]have lost ground on the gun registry."