Tory strategists on Broadway might be asking themselves this week what PC Leader Doug Ford did to pull off one of the greatest political comebacks in recent Ontario history — and how it could be bottled and imported into Manitoba.
Ford, the once loud, populist premier whose "buck-a-beer" shtick and abrasive style of politics saw his popularity rise and fall more often than global equity markets, is expected to cruise to electoral victory Thursday. It’s a win few thought possible just a few months ago.
Like most premiers across the country (with the exception of former Manitoba premier Brian Pallister), Ford got a bump in the polls during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the love affair quickly ended. After a series of gaffes and political missteps, Ford became one of the least popular premiers in Canada.
As recently as January, the Conservative premier’s approval rating plummeted to 30 per cent, according to the Angus Reid Institute. He was only slightly ahead of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (26 per cent) and Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson (21 per cent).
Stefanson has ranked dead last since she was sworn in last year.
Realizing he was headed in the wrong direction, Ford (who led the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario to a majority win in 2018) took a new tack: he became less abrasive, more moderate and willing to publicly admit mistakes.
He changed course on public health measures when he realized he was wrong (such as closing playgrounds and giving police arbitrary powers to enforce social distancing rules). He even cried publicly once during the pandemic. (So did Pallister, but it didn’t give him a boost in the polls.)
Ford also stuck to his guns and enforced some of the most stringent public health measures in the country, while other provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, reopened their economies quicker, often with deadly results. All three Prairie provinces have higher per capita COVID-19 death rates than Ontario.
Ford reinvented himself. On the campaign trail, there was little, if any, of the usual Conservative chatter about balanced budgets or deficit reduction. Instead, the premier kept it simple.
He spoke mostly about funding highways and reinvigorating the economy. He was short on detail and big on vague — but soothing — platitudes about improving life in Ontario after two years of bankruptcies, sickness, and death.
"Let’s get it done," his campaign slogan reads, a cheesy but surprisingly effective political message. He even got endorsements from several union leaders — a rare, if unheard of, accomplishment for any conservative party.
Ford went from rock-bottom approval in January to an expected electoral win five months later. It is a remarkable comeback.
If he can do it, why not Stefanson?
Can the rookie PC premier, who has one year, four months to reposition herself before a scheduled provincial election Oct. 3, 2023, reinvent herself the way Ford has? Perhaps, but she would have to start now and make some big changes.
To begin with, Stefanson would have to cut the condescending language.
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda" — the premier’s infamous response to questions about the province’s pandemic response during the third wave (when 57 ICU patients were airlifted out of Manitoba) was arrogant and shows a stunning lack of self-reflection.
"In hindsight, we made a mistake by not better protecting Manitobans — we are going to learn from those errors," would have been more leader-like.
The next time Stefanson’s child wins a hockey tournament, she may not want to brag about it in the legislative assembly, especially if she’s being asked a sensitive question. And if she "forgets" to disclose a change in her assets to the clerk of the legislative assembly, she should own up to it and apologize unconditionally.
Stefanson has to stop playing fast and loose with the rules, such as violating election spending regulations during the Tory party leadership race.
The gaffes add up: they paint a picture of an uncaring, privileged premier who lives in a different world than most Manitobans.
Doug Ford convinced enough Ontarians he’s with them, that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the average person on the street.
Stefanson will have to undergo a similar metamorphosis if she hopes to succeed at the polls next year.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.