As cost of living soars, affordability becomes top Ontario election issue
Parties must fight this campaign on making life more affordable, says strategist
In every Ontario election poll that's publicly available, the number one concern of voters is the rising cost of living.
Affordability has rocketed past the perennial top issues of health — even after two years of a global pandemic — and jobs, with the unemployment rate at record lows.
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While the Ontario party leaders are often talking on the campaign trail about making life more affordable, it's a wonder that they're not hammering the issue even harder, given how strongly it's resonating with voters.
"The smart politicians won't just talk about [the cost of living] as an issue, they will understand it's a character test," said Greg Lyle, a veteran pollster and president of Innovative Research Group.
"People want to hear them talk about the issue in a way that says that those politicians understand the problem that the voters are facing," Lyle said in an interview with CBC News.
"It's on the minds of so many people," Lyle said. "If you [as a politician] miss this issue, then it sounds like to the average voter that you're not listening to them."
What's not clear from the polls is which party voters believe can best tackle it.
Lyle's polling suggests Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative Party has an advantage on the issue over the Ontario Liberals and the NDP, He believes this is as much or more a legacy of the parties' long-term reputations among voters than a reaction to any particular measures the parties had offered on affordability prior to his late April polling.
"Part of the problem that the Liberals have is that they're blamed for high electricity prices, as Ontarians perceive it, and so they have to beat that history to get ahead on the issue," said Lyle.
Yet, when asked which party would do a better job on affordability, the most common response was none of the parties, which suggests there is some opportunity for the Liberals and the NDP to gain some ground on the PCs.
Similarly, polling by Earnscliffe Strategies suggests the PCs have only a slight lead among voters who named the cost of living as their top concern.
"There is no one party that really owns this issue," said Doug Anderson, co-lead of national opinion research for Earnscliffe.
Because affordability has emerged only recently as the dominant issue, Anderson characterizes public opinion on it as "volatile." He therefore believes there's significant growth potential for a party that offers voters an attractive package of ways to make life more affordable.
"I think that we'll see parties make decisions to highlight [affordability] policies more," Anderson said.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca's chief attempt to do this so far was his attention-getting buck-a-ride promise: all transit fares in Ontario would be $1 until 2024 He spent the rest of last week unveiling education announcements.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has been trying to bring attention to the ideas in her platform on how to make life more affordable.
On Thursday she talked about a dental-care program that could save the typical household more than $1,200 a year. She then spent Friday focusing on her housing plan, including an offer of government help with down payments. And Saturday it was about bringing down people's electricity and heating bills through funding home energy retrofits.
The PCs are aiming for what appears to be a front-runner-style campaign, with Ford's daily events merely repeating things he's previously announced .
The main affordability measures Ford has to offer apply to drivers: the scrapping of annual vehicle registration fees, the removal of tolls on provincially owned highways in the Greater Toronto Area and a promised six-month reduction of Ontario's gasoline tax by 5.7 cents per litre.
All the parties need to fight the election on the issue of affordability, said Ginny Roth, a former Ontario PC strategist who now works in government relations for Crestview Strategy.
"It's incredibly crucial, and they've got to do it in a way that differentiates," Roth said in an interview.
She understands why the NDP is promising dental care and pharmacare but questions whether they're communicating clearly to voters how it will make their lives more affordable.
"I don't think they're cutting through in the way that Del Duca Liberals have had some success in cutting through on the messaging side," Roth said.
She thinks Del Duca's $1 transit fares promise succeeded by being "politically appetizing."
Affordability overtook COVID-19 as the top issue only late last year after the worst of the pandemic appeared to be behind Ontario. It's almost as if from March of 2020, people accepted that the pandemic had to be the priority, but then their pent-up concerns over the cost of living burst forth.
Mix in home prices skyrocketing by 44 per cent in just two years, plus a spike in inflation with Ontarians confronting record-high gas prices and soaring grocery bills daily, and you've got voters demanding to know what the parties will do to make life easier on their wallets.
It's been uncommon to see one issue dominate Ontario politics of late, said Lyle.
"This is new compared to, say, the last decade of Ontario election campaigns," he said. "The last couple of elections, we've had crowded issue agendas where it was very hard to address an issue that everyone would be interested in."
Now, that issue "everyone is interested in" is staring the Ontario political parties right in the face. It will be fascinating to see how they handle it over the rest of the campaign.