In a year, Ontario will be heading into an election to decide the next government. This raises a plethora of questions: will the Progressive Conservatives hold onto power despite the rocky last four years? Will the NDP inch closer to what they need to form a government? Will the Green’s capture more seats and become a kingmaker in Queens Park?
And what of the Liberals, a party currently rebuilding from the ground up? How will they carve out a path back to power?
There are many questions about each party's path forward. And unfortunately for us (and them), politics is a chaotic game where tried-and-true tactics that worked once might not work again. The tide is always changing.
Regardless, each party must find ways of appealing to Ontarians in order to win the seats required to form a government. This article will outline some of my thoughts on what each party can do to ensure victory. It’s a mixture of my experience studying and analyzing political psychology & strategy, mixed with my personal experiences on (and off) the campaign trail speaking to Ontarians.
Note: I’m specifically avoiding topics such as riding strongholds, and only brushing the surface of voter contact. Those are common in political strategy. I want to shift our focus to unique, uncommon ways the parties can gain power that can support the more common political strategies we’re familiar with.
This is the path forward from my view.
Time will decide what works and what doesn’t.
The Liberal Path Forward
2018 was a brutal year for the Ontario Liberal Party. Losing an election and being reduced to non-party status was a beating the party is still recovering from. Thankfully, they were polling relatively high despite having no leader, which gives newly elected leader Steven Del Duca a more positive foundation to move forward on. They’re also building a new platform while nominating a slate of candidates in preparation for the 2022 election, which is helping spur excitement.
For the Ontario Liberal Party, the path forward requires them to overcome the concerns that previous supporters have — especially the ones who abandoned ship and voted for elsewhere in 2018.
As such, the Liberal’s can benefit from two major strategies while rebuilding their party to prepare for a 2022 election.
1: Find The “Common Thread” Amongst Former & Current Voters
This one seems pretty obvious. Of course, a party would want to speak to voters about what matters to them. But the key here for the Liberals is to do two things: speak with voters that supported them before but left in 2018 and find supporters who continued to support them through 2018. The goal is to find common themes amongst both groups, searching for what frustrations they held and reasons they stuck around.
By doing so, the party can identify pitfalls that led them to lose in the past, and avoid them. They can also determine the true values of their base, the policies and solutions that matter to them and find ways of creating appeal for those in a new way.
An example of this is a reformation of the education system. The Progressive Conservatives' cutbacks on education funding landed them in hot water, and the Liberals can seize that frustration and offer policy that reflects the desires of parents, educators, and students. The party can campaign on (as it seems to be planning to do) equipping teachers with the tools they need to educate effectively while ensuring education systems focus on economic growth.
2: Frame Policy As “Pragmatic Progressive”
There’s no shortage of problems in the world today, and Ontarians know that. Progressive solutions are becoming more and more popular in today’s age, and this gives the Ontario Liberal Party the opportunity to shape their agenda in a way that reflects those solutions in a centre-left fashion. Similar to how the Federal Liberal Party communicates, the Ontario Liberal Party can run a platform focused on reasonable, targeted solutions to large problems.
These policies will differ from more sweeping solutions of the NDP or Green Party. The goal of the Liberal’s policies is to create more simple, straightforward solutions that Ontarians can look at and say “that makes sense.”
Here’s an example, right from former leadership candidate Michael Coteau: free public transit. Yes, it would be a giant financial undertaking, but it’s straightforward, simple, and it’s an answer to the “how do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions” question. Coupled with the Federal Liberal Party’s push for more green infrastructure like electric buses, and you’ve got a solid strategy that is pragmatic, simple, and straightforward. Ontarians can use green public transit if they’d like — it’s free!
The Green & NDP Path’s Forward
For the Green’s & the NDP, their paths forward are similar enough to warrant one section. This doesn’t mean their policies are the same. What it does mean is that they share enough valuable similarities they can leverage, so it’s easier to write them both in one section.
While the Green’s hold one stronghold in Guelph (AKA the Royal City AKA my old stomping ground #GryphonPride), the party can leverage the excitement around climate movements to begin winning seats across the province (frustrations with Ford’s handling of conservation authorities can only help). They can also identify key ridings to put more of their resources into, and use Green Party Mike Schreiner’s seat at Queen’s Park as a pulpit to promote the party.
Similar to the Green Party, the NDP is uniquely positioned to capture a young, excited demographic that wants to address fundamental problems on a large scale: for-profit care, manageable or even free tuition, climate change, etc.
Both parties benefit from a unique base (whether a current base or a potential base): activists and advocates. While no party has a monopoly on these types of citizens, a common trend is that activists and advocates find their home in the Green Party or NDP (the former typically for environmentalists and the like-minded, and the latter being the original party for unions and the working-class).
Both parties suffer from building wide-spread support as voters typically return to the Liberal’s over time, but can gain power by applying new strategies to how they communicate with the public.
As such, here are my suggestions for both parties:
1: Change Messaging To Focus On Positive, Sweeping Policy
Both parties, by their nature, tackle major issues in Ontario politics. And that’s important. As I mentioned earlier, many advocates and activists lean towards these parties. Naturally, the parties reflect the issues they campaign on.
But campaigning on issues gets tiring, and at some point, the parties will have to shift their messaging to the bold, positive policy that can solve multiple issues at once instead of focusing solely on problems (something exacerbated by the PC’s cuts and rollbacks).
The path forward for the Green’s & NDP has to include these bold, positive messages about solutions. Yes, they need to speak about problems at some point. But the tactic is to spend more time talking about policies and solutions that can benefit Ontarians: more accessible healthcare, an education system that addresses mental health challenges, free tuition, and a bold green economy that creates jobs and protects the planet.
Details matter here and the parties will have to figure out ways of communicating directly with Ontarians.
Note: in a minute I’ll be talking about how the NDP, Greens, and even the Liberals can double down on the cutbacks that the PC’s used: what you would see in typical attack ads. While these are important, any negative messaging must take the 2nd seat to positive, future-oriented messaging.
2: B-D-A Campaigning (Before, During, After)
Both the Green’s & the NDP benefit from supporters who are, more often than not, engaged in activism and advocacy. The number of supporters in both these parties are smaller but care deeply about the challenges Ontarians face.
One of the challenges, not just for these parties, but for many political parties in Canada is the stagnation of excitement outside of elections. Parties typically increase support during campaigning, only for it to fizzle out afterwards as politicians settle into governance mode. This isn’t America where campaigning is a literal industry and campaigns can go a year & a half, or Europe where their more connected and complex political system requires a higher frequency of voting.
This means the Green’s & NDP will have to take a different approach. While they can benefit from meeting with activists, advocates, and Ontarians to listen to their issues, they can take it a step further: supporting the development and success of activists and advocates by partnering with organizations, sharing resources (where appropriate), and helping with skill development. The parties can reach out to similar progressive organizations and politicians across the border in the United States, or even in Europe to learn what works and what doesn’t.
The Green Party can obviously focus on environmentalists and the like, and the NDP can focus on union workers and those disenfranchised by the economic crisis. They can also move into areas such as education advocacy, seniors care, and healthcare.
By investing in the work that activists and advocates do, they can ensure the values they both share get amplified outside of the election period. Skill-development is key here: offering advice, insight, and even networks to help advocates improve their work may translate into more support for both parties come election time. By helping put issues and challenges on the radar, while presenting bold solutions to those challenges, the parties can spur excitement ahead of time leading into the election (and they may secure volunteers in the process).
This is what I mean by B-D-A: before the election, identify and help advocates doing meaningful work, ensuring they get the support they need to fight the good fight. During the election, reach out and ask if they’re able to volunteer, donate, or help share your platform on social media (hence why I said they need to talk to advocates, to get informed about important issues and reflect those in their platforms). After the election, no matter the result, continue that process: helping advocates where appropriate, encouraging Ontarians to get involved, and continuing the work they participated in prior to the election.
This, if sustained, can create a full circle: more citizens informed and engaged, more potential volunteers/supporters, more seats won, more policies passed, more citizens informed and engaged, etc., etc.
Bonus: Give The Conservatives A Taste Of Their Own Medicine
I’ll take a second to share a specific strategy that conservatives have used all over the globe but the centre-left to far-left parties can leverage in this election.
The PCs cut back on, reduced, and got rid of a lot. It was part of their mandate to “clean up”. However, in doing so they tampered with services and opportunities that many Ontarians didn’t want to be affected: education, environment, municipal politics, etc.
Now, the PCs are happy to put this all behind them and hope Ontarians forget. But the Liberals, NDP and Greens need to double down on these cutbacks and bring them right to the forefront of citizens across the province.
The parties can use a psychological concept known as “loss aversion”, which is the tendency for people to make decisions that keep (or getting back) something of theirs. In politics, that means services, parks, or even rights (although parties need to put in extra effort to convince voters these things are theirs).
Sound familiar? That’s because conservatives across the globe have used this strategy before. Take back control by the Brexit campaign. Make America Great Again by Donald Trump. Take Back Canada by Erin O’Toole’s leadership campaign. All examples of loss aversion in action.
(This concept was first introduced to me in the book Catalyst by Jonah Berger. I highly recommend it for any political strategist trying to change voter’s minds, or interested citizens trying to understand human behaviour.)
The Progressive Conservative Path Forward
The PC’s had a phenomenal showing in 2018, sweeping to power with a majority government. Since then, they’ve run into multiple challenges, including heavy backlash from their education cuts, municipal city council restructuring, and conservation authority changes.
They still have ample support, but if they want to maintain their successes they’ll have to address some problems weighing them down.
Here are my suggestions for the PC party to maintain their government in 2022.
1: Regain trust by shifting focus to fiscal & citizen responsibility
The approach by the PC’s when it came to the passing policy was haphazard, to say the least. Pushing through policy such as blanket budget reductions, reducing municipal councillor seats, targeting student group funding under a tuition reduction guise (the Student Choice Initiative), slyly rolling back environmental protections, etc. These don’t paint a good picture for the party leading into 2022, especially with three very angry opposition members, an increase in support for the Liberals, and a growing population frustrated with economic and climate injustice.
For the PC party, the path forward will require the party to regain trust by shifting focus to the underlying theme of the party done in a more responsible way: fiscal responsibility. The party has to take a more centrist, calculated approach by sharing policy they can map to economic growth all while ensuring the party doesn’t touch sensitive topics like the environment. They’ll need to offer a middle-path of balancing economic priorities while ensuring the protection of environmental areas like the greenbelt (something they got in trouble with during the last four years).
2: Focus on small business, job security, and economic growth
These priorities are often the cornerstone of modern conservative messaging, next to ideas like “reducing the deficit”. Supporting small businesses, ensuring support for various industries, and designing both to support economic growth is a solid path forward for the PCs.
They can do this by putting “smart spending” at the forefront of their campaign strategies, identifying spending waste (something they’ve touched on before) and focusing on removing red tape for small businesses to allow them to grow. The focus has to be small businesses because this keeps the spotlight on the “little guy” that the PC party tries to represent. Ford has been identified as a populist before, so he can double down on the citizen-focused messaging by introducing policies that support small business-oriented citizens.
The goal isn’t to haphazardly remove anything that looks like a roadblock: they need to come at it from an informed, targeted process that shifts the field towards more local and small-scale solutions. Ensuring small businesses have wiggle room can be the golden ticket the Progressive Conservatives have as a path back to Queen’s Park.
Each party requires a different journey to the top of the mountain, as each represents different values. How those values are embraced (or rejected) by Ontarians will determine who wins the mandate to govern. Strategy, pragmatism, idealism, and luck will play fundamental roles in deciding who will lead Ontario into 2022 and beyond.
As such, each party must reconcile its uniqueness, strengths, and weaknesses with the needs and desires of Ontarians. They must leverage what works for them and connect it to the moment of the times. Only by doing so can they seize the people power they each need to win.
These are my observations. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the future of Ontario politics.
cura ut valeas.