Doug Ford Elected Ontario PC Party Leader

After hours of deliberation between organizing committee officials and leadership candidates, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party selected former City of Toronto Councillor and mayoral candidate Doug Ford as its new Leader, turning the page on what has been one of the most tumultuous chapters in Ontario political history.

To the hope of many conservative supporters and voters in the province, the end of the leadership race represents an opportunity for the PCs to finally change the narrative and now focus on defeating Kathleen Wynne in the upcoming election.

In what was a very tight two-way race, Doug Ford won on the third ballot, narrowly beating-out former PC MPP and Deputy Leader Christine Elliott.  In the news conference announcing the results of the race, Doug Ford was flanked by his family and leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen.  It is anticipated that she will likely play a role in the party going forward given the support that she has garnered over the campaign.

For its part, the Elliot camp has not conceded to Ford and is pressing for an investigation into “irregularities” in the vote.  UPDATE: Christine Elliot has conceded to PC Leader Doug Ford. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see the role that Christine Elliott will play going forward, especially having committed to running in the next election and resigning from her former post as Patient Ombudsman.

The New Leader

The victory of Doug Ford represents a shift from the more centrist PC Party under Patrick Brown, towards a more populist, “small c” conservative (i.e. less government, pro-business) approach in an attempt to drive a strong contrast with the Wynne government and tap into discontent and feelings of disenfranchisement in the province.

One of the Party’s biggest challenges will be Ford’s (and all candidates’) commitment to oppose a carbon tax, if elected.

Although popular with the conservative base, it remains an Achilles Heel for the PCs and leaves them with a potential gap in their previously costed four-year platform. All candidates managed to skate by on this issue during the leadership campaign, but now that the gloves are off, the other political parties can be expected to jump on the issue.

In the absence of a carbon tax, and the abolishment of the current cap and trade system, the PCs will need to present a pared-down platform. Anything else opens them up to a ‘hidden agenda’ argument, and allegations from their opponents that savings could only be found in cuts to public and social services – which did not fare well for Tim Hudak in 2014.

Of course, closing the fiscal gap may not be nearly as complex as observers would like to imagine. Justin Trudeau has indicated that there will be a carbon tax of some form and that if provinces don’t implement one themselves, the federal government will impose one. Should this transpire, the simple solution for the PCs is to oppose the federal tax, accept the money transfer to the province, and then return it to citizens through tax cuts or other measures. This will allow the PC Party to ‘fight’ the carbon tax, but still maintain the fiscal integrity of the Platform, which used carbon tax money to cut taxes and provide child care benefits.

Ford will also face aggressive attacks from the Liberals and NDP who will attempt to negatively brand his positions on sex education, and other social issues as out of touch with mainstream Ontario. However, Doug Ford has proven quite adept over the years at turning the tables on ‘professional’ campaigners by aligning himself with the everyday concerns of Ontarians. On these and other issues a measure of ‘big tent’ politics could result in the tables being turned on those who would close the door on differing views.

Unity and the Patrick Brown Question

While the new Leader prepares to take on Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath, Ford is also facing the tough task of uniting a Party that has never been more divided and has shown an unparalleled propensity and willingness to air its dirty laundry in public.

Over the past month, the PCs have seen one Leader resign following sexual misconduct allegations, an Interim Leader who claims widespread rot in the Party, and a not insignificant number of Party members who were unable to vote, and a campaign that has stated it intends to challenge the legitimacy of the leadership result. UPDATE: Elliot has conceded.

In the coming weeks, Doug Ford will have to address all these challenges, as well as the outstanding elephant in the room: how to handle Patrick Brown, who is still a nominated candidate and intends to run in the next election.

The voters of Ontario will be watching closely to see how the new Leader is able to separate himself from this mess and right the ship, and whether that is even possible so close to an election.

Ontario Liberals Encouraged by Results

The Liberal campaign sees opportunity in Ford as an opponent. While his strong campaigning skills and populism are likely to pull working class men from the NDP, he helps the Liberals consolidate the progressive vote away from the NDP with strategic voting. Ford polls particularly poorly among post-secondary educated women, the key target vote for the Liberals. The Liberals are confident in their ability to motivate individual donations and turnout against Doug Ford.

Additionally, they will be keen to not underestimate his appeal (and that of Ford Nation) as has been done by a number of political actors before.

The Liberals need to attempt the Herculean task of avoiding being tagged as the establishment party, in a year when people appear to be looking for change.  The sharp policy changes on minimum wage, rent control and pharmacare are likely to be joined by more high-profile changes in the budget and platform to maintain their change credentials. The Liberals have won the last four elections in part because of ill-advised policy choices by the Conservatives that positioned them outside the mainstream. The last month of campaigning has set-up that dynamic again.

The demise of the initial PC Party platform, the People’s Guarantee, will open up a series of attacks that the Liberals were hoping to make in the election. The end of the carbon tax allows the Liberals to credibly claim that the Progressive Conservatives will deeply cut services to health and education. Pledges to re-open the sex education curriculum and Doug Ford’s call for changes in abortion rules for minors allow for portraying them as social reactionaries.  Additionally, the chaotic process to select a leader allows the Liberals and media to ask questions about their competence.

Appetite for Change Likely a Key Driver in the Next Election

Although the latest polling consensus seem to point to the Progressive Conservatives leading the polls by a significant margin above the governing Liberals, it is important to continue to monitor the progress of the Ontario New Democrats.  Although the PC base is likely larger than the other two parties, there is less opportunity for growth. To win the next election, Doug Ford will need to ensure that he can grow, not just protect the base.  Conversely, the NDP are in a strong position to grow as progressive voters eager for change could shift their support to the NDP.

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