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Federal political parties take notes on Rob Ford's strategy

Toronto mayor-elect Rob Ford, centre, is hugged by a mob of supporters as he makes his way into speak to supporters in Toronto on Monday, October 25, 2010.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto by an immigrant-led working-class uprising that has dramatically bagged national party attention - encouraging Conservatives to be bolder in a city that hasn't loved them in the past, and compelling Liberals to adjust their policy image to look more Fordish without being Fordish.

Federal Liberal insiders said on Tuesday the party is shifting strategy in response to the political forces that propelled Mr. Ford into office.

Party leader Michael Ignatieff, speaking to journalists after Parliament's Question Period on Tuesday, immediately pummelled the Conservative government of Stephen Harper over the $1.3-billion spent on the G8 and G20 summits, the latter one of which paralyzed Toronto, on the theory that if pointing out government waste can win votes for Mr. Ford, it should also win votes for Mr. Ignatieff.

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But more specifically, insiders said the Liberals will abandon nanny state proposals like universal child care and put forward boutique proposals that would cost relatively little and target areas where many Canadians are hurting - such as their family-care plan, which would give family caregivers a six-month employment-insurance benefit similar to parental leave and a family-care tax benefit for low- and moderate-income earners modelled on the child tax benefit.

On the Conservative side, party members were quick to point out that municipal politics are unique to each city. But they nonetheless saw blue sky in Toronto, which has no Conservative members of Parliament.

"Conservatives appear to do better in Toronto, and in general, when they act like conservatives," said Chris Froggatt, managing partner of National Public Relations in Ottawa and a former senior aide to John Baird, federal transportation and infrastructure minister.

He urged his fellow party members to "have the courage to go against the generally accepted wisdom that they have to somehow water down their conservatism in order to appeal to cities like Toronto."

At the same time, political strategists were near-unanimous in discounting any ideological shift in Toronto's electorate as the reason the right-wing Mr. Ford was catapulted into the top political job in Canada's largest city.

Rather they talked about hostility as the driving force behind his victory, a hostility produced by growing inequality in Canada and aimed at people seen by Mr. Ford's supporters as the well-educated privileged elites commanding huge salaries in the marketplace while their own incomes have gone nowhere in the past quarter-century, their household debt has sharply increased and they're sandwiched between looking after elders and paying off their children's education and they can't see any way to get ahead.

In fact, they're inclined to see government as the major obstacle to them getting ahead, said Robin Sears, senior partner in the influential Toronto government relations firm Navigator Ltd.

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They see themselves living in a world of government entanglement with increasing taxes and declining services, he said. But he stressed that Mr. Ford's mantra of cutting government spending is mostly a surrogate issue for his supporters.

"Spending less money won't abate their anger. What's struck a chord with them is not primarily about money but about the government treating them with elitist distance. They feel they're not respected, they're not consulted, and it's exactly the same feelings that have surfaced in elections in Calgary and Ottawa.

"Ironically, this has put Toronto back in play politically. The Liberals no longer can take the city for granted and the Conservatives might now think there's something worthwhile in the place."

While strong support for Mr. Ford among older Torontonians and non-union members of the working and lower-middle classes was anticipated by pollsters - "They're the guys on the winning side in upper North America," said Ekos Research president Frank Graves - the strong backing he received from immigrants is imperfectly understood.

They were 20 per cent more likely to vote for Mr. Ford than Canadian-born residents of the city. "It was a surprise to me," Mr. Graves said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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