How the Ontario election is a warm-up act for the 2019 federal campaign

When they're not scrapping over the nation's business on Parliament Hill, political operatives on both sides of the aisle in Ottawa have their eyes glued to the high-stakes Ontario provincial election — for one excellent reason.

In staffing, tactics and policy, there's a lot of carry-over between the federal and provincial operations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands alongside Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne during a funding announcement for the Toronto waterfront on June 28 , 2017. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

When they're not scrapping over the nation's business on Parliament Hill, political operatives on both sides of the aisle in Ottawa have their eyes glued to the high-stakes Ontario provincial election — for one excellent reason.

The issues in the Ontario race are regional. But the race itself — the tactics and policies pursued by the three main parties and their leaders — will serve as a dress rehearsal for the federal election in 2019.

"I think every election becomes an informer to the one to come," said Jaime Watt, executive chairman of Navigator, a strategic communications firm based in Toronto.

The Ontario and federal Liberal parties tend to mirror one another in the way they approach campaigns. For proof, look no further than how both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne work to tie their Conservative opponents to controversial political figures on the political right.

The Trump/Harper factor

Last month at a pre-campaign stop, Wynne compared Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford to a certain rage-tweeting, media-bashing leader south of the border.

"Doug Ford sounds like Donald Trump and that's because he is like Donald Trump," Wynne told the audience at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. "He will say anything about anyone at any time. Because just like Trump, it is all about him."

In a campaign-style speech in Halifax last month, Trudeau also used the memory of another divisive figure in conservative politics as a stick to bash his rival.

"It may be Andrew Scheer's smile," Trudeau told the crowd. "But it's still Stephen Harper's party," 

To be sure, an Ontario government led by Ford would be a nagging headache for the Trudeau Liberals. For them, losing a friendly government in Ontario would mean losing useful political support for key federal policies, such as carbon pricing and expanding the number of safe injection sites.

Wynne's campaign co-chair, Tim Murphy, said it would be better for the federal Liberals to have a government in Queen's Park that shares their priorities.

I think the members of Andrew Scheer's campaign are going to watch (Ontario) closely.- Chad Rogers, Crestview Strategies

"From a policy perspective my sense is, you know, the federal government is trying to carve a bit of the same territory that Kathleen Wynne has been leading on, which is moving towards an activist centre," Murphy told CBC News.

Meanwhile, Ford and his federal counterpart Scheer sometimes sound like they're reading from the same script — offering simply-worded slogans and talking points about smaller government, job creation, economic growth and getting rid of Trudeau's carbon pricing plan.

This is Monday's Ontario leaders' debate in 60 seconds

5 years ago
Duration 1:02
Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath sparred on hydro, policing and healthcare during Monday’s leaders’ debate in Toronto.

"I think the members of Andrew Scheer's campaign are going to watch (Ontario) closely," said Chad Rogers, a partner at Crestview Strategies and a former Conservative staffer. "And every day that Doug Ford has a good day, that his messages work, they're going to consider that a successful trial run for something they might want to do in 2019."

Mind the mudslinging

Same goes for Ontario New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath and her federal cousin Jagmeet Singh — who used to be her deputy leader at Queen's Park. New Democrats say both leaders have embraced a strategy of letting the other two leaders duke it out and trade insults, while they work to stay above the fray.

Former NDP MP Peggy Nash said Singh and Horwath both believe their prospects improve the longer they stay out of the mud — because a lot of voters are turned off by "bickering and attacks."

"Our most successful time federally was under Jack Layton, and Jack was irrepressibly positive," she said. "That is the message that I think Andrea is trying to present and I think we need to present federally."

The provincial NDP is also experiencing a phenomenon familiar for decades on the federal scene: Liberal policy swipes. Wynne is campaigning on a March throne speech that promised $575 million per year for seniors' pharmacare — a perennial NDP policy plank — and has admitted publicly that "there's a lot of similarity ... between what we're putting forward and what the NDP is putting forward."

The political coordination between the federal and provincial parties extends beyond tone and tactics to talent, as well.

Ford's campaign employs many people from former prime minister Stephen Harper's old order of battle. His campaign manager, Kory Teneycke, was Harper's director of communications. Jenni Byrne ran Harper's campaigns in 2011 and 2015; she's now mapping out ridings for Ford as his director of field operations.

Much of Trudeau's core team came from the provincial legislature. Senior political adviser Gerry Butts was a principal secretary to Wynne's Liberal predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, and Katie Telford, Trudeau's chief of staff, used to work for Ontario's education minister, Gerard Kennedy. The relationship between the two Liberal operations is close, and members of the federal operation can be expected to keep in close touch with the provincial campaign between now and voting day on June 7.

From the Hill to the hustings

You can also expect to see some federal MPs taking an active role in the provincial campaign.

Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard (Barrie–Innisfil) said he's already been out canvassing on Ford's behalf.

"My hope is is that the Conservatives win in Ontario," said Brassard. "These are people who have helped me in the past in my campaign and I'm going to help our candidate in Barrie as well."

NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) said he expects to do some door-knocking on his provincial cousins' behalf.

"I help out my team," he said. "People in Northern Ontario do not often see a difference between their federal and provincial counterparts. When they come up to me about hydro, they expect an answer — and (it's) same with my (provincial) colleagues on federal issues."

​Liberal MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga Centre) said he's on the lookout for "what my colleagues need and how I can help." Liberal MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York) said he'll be supporting every provincial Liberal who needs his help and "knocking on every door I can knock on."

"It's to our advantage if we want our program to succeed ... that we have someone at Queen's Park that can actually understand those two issues," said Vaughn.


Hannah Thibedeau

Parliament Hill

Hannah Thibedeau is a veteran political reporter having covered the Hill for more than 15 years, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. She covers politics for CBC TV, CBC Radio and CBC Politics online.


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