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Time Marches On: The Pandemic and the 2022 Ontario Provincial Election

Published on
June 29, 2020

By: Brian Zeiler-Kligman - Vice President, Ontario Government Relations

As life more and more resembles the plot of a Stephen King novel or a Michael Bay movie, it feels odd to think about polls and political implications. We are tentatively implementing Stage 2 of re-opening our economy and time keeps marching closer to the next provincial election on or before June 2, 2022.

We are essentially at the mid-point of the Ford government’s mandate. And pandemic or not, the prospects of re-election remain (at least near) top of mind for the government and the Opposition parties.

Not to sound crass, but without a doubt Premier Ford has had a very good pandemic. Deservedly so based on his steady, reassuring and visible leadership, to date. Supporters and critics alike have praised the job Premier Ford has done during this crisis. While nearly all Canadian political leaders have benefitted from a “rally around the flag” phenomenon, arguably Premier Ford has performed strongest amongst his fellow leaders, earning his impressive bump in approval ratings.

If we turn the clock back to early March, though, the Premier had low personal polling numbers (with polls also generally showing the PCs behind a then-leaderless Liberal party) and was facing backlash over his handling of the education file, amongst others.

Now, in June, polls are showing the PCs essentially in a statistical tie with the Liberals, contracts concluded with all major education unions and Premier Ford’s approval rating near 70%.

The Premier’s re-election prospects have brightened considerably. Prior to the pandemic, the electorate was likely to judge Premier Ford’s re-election merit on how well he succeeded in fixing the province’s finances. Now, his prospects for re-election will rest on how he handles the economic recovery, which is the phase to come.

As the provincial government turns more of its attention to this stage of the pandemic response, organizations need to recognize this electoral reality and to reflect on how this situation should inform their approach to the Ford government. There are 3 dynamics to keep top of mind:

The Politics of the COVID Recovery

During the pandemic, Premier Ford has generally been a paragon of non-partisanship: praising the work being done by the federal government; emphasizing that Team Ontario (rather than the Blue Team or the Orange Team) is in this together; and praising the Ontario Spirit. Definitely, this has been the right tone for the times. But, as Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changing.

As the Ford government shifts from virus containment to seeding economic growth, electoral considerations have quietly re-emerged. Wisely, Premier Ford was ahead of the curve in naming a Jobs and Economic Recovery Committee on April 9. Even wiser was the charge to the PC caucus to engage with their local stakeholders and to bring local projects or businesses to the Cabinet Committee table. This move should help caucus members’ re-election prospects and ensures the 2022 ground game is already being built.

The Provincial Cupboard is Bare

Stakeholders who engaged with the Ford government pre-pandemic will be familiar with government officials citing the province’s hefty deficit and being clear that government funds were unavailable. Due to the pandemic and the measures put in place to support individuals and businesses during the shutdown, Ontario’s deficit is (possibly optimistically) about 3 times bigger than the $15-billion deficit that occupied the government’s focus pre-pandemic. As much as the Premier has said he will spare no expense, out of necessity, there will increasingly be expenses spared.

Massive investments in infrastructure projects were prominent features of government responses to stimulate economies during the Great Recession in 2008-2009. This time around, the massive government spending programs have been focused on simply managing the impact of the lockdown. Now that we are turning to economic recovery, there are minimal government funds available to drive that growth.

To be clear, money budgeted for infrastructure projects or other programs will be spent as planned. But massive new expenditures in these areas just aren’t in the cards. It truly is up to the private sector to make this economic recovery happen. Expect the Ford government to assist that private sector-led recovery through a re-doubled focus on reducing red tape and making Ontario open for business, rather than new spending.

The Long Road to Recovery

As the shutdown was starting, the general hope was for a V-shaped recession: a quick, sharp drop (the shutdown phase) followed by a fast and steep recovery.

We certainly have experienced the quick, sharp drop. But nearly 3 months later, we are only beginning to slowly re-open the economy – to say nothing of the impact from an anticipated second or third (or fourth…) wave of infections.

Economists now agree a V-shaped recovery is extremely unlikely. It’s going to take some time just to get back to where we were in the beginning of 2020.

The Jobs and Economic Recovery Committee is looking for some quick wins to spur economic growth, with a focus on measures to be included in the provincial budget that will be delivered by November 15. This Committee’s work will likely be needed beyond 2020. It is entirely possible Ontario’s economy will still not have fully recovered by the time of the 2022 election.

What Does It Mean For Me and My Organization?

In deference to the current environment, the political considerations in the recovery phase will continue to be more subtle. They won’t disappear from consideration, though. As others have noted, there’s no such thing as a non-partisan recovery plan.

So, one still needs to be mindful of the Ford Government’s priorities pre-pandemic. Creating the regulatory environment that lets business thrive will continue to find much more favour than costly expansions of the state.

Ultimately, projects that drive economic recovery without requiring support from government are the most likely to find favour. Expect private sector-led development projects to fill some of the stimulus role publicly-funded infrastructure projects played in the 2008 recession recovery.

Further, economic recovery is going to be a longer project than originally anticipated. While the government has started to move on planning the economic recovery, ideas are still being sought and there is still time for your organization to engage.

Whether your organization finds itself with economic recovery proposals or retrenching to protect existing funding programs, Sussex can help your organization best position itself for success. As busy as all organizations are right now adjusting to the next normal, make sure to prepare for this economic recovery phase and what it will mean for your organization. Be confident that many of your competitors already are looking to take advantage of this opportunity.

Please contact your Sussex representative for more information on this important next phase in Ontario’s response to COVID-19 or reach out to me directly at: bz-k@sussex-strategy.com.