Wynne, Ford 'throwing punches at each other' as tone of Ontario election campaign turns nasty

The election campaign hasn't even started yet in Ontario, but already there are predictions that it will be one of the nastiest races for premier in the province's history.

Even the premier is warning voters to expect a 'vicious' battle

Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford have begun trading nasty barbs before the official election campaign begins. Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath could get drowned out. (Canadian Press)

The election campaign hasn't even started yet in Ontario, but already there are predictions that it will be one of the nastiest races for premier in the province's history.

Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is trying to stop Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford from taking her job on June 7, and she's among those warning voters about the tone they can expect to hear in the weeks leading up to election day.

"I think it's crystal clear that this is going to be a vicious campaign," Wynne said Wednesday at an event in Toronto.

She had just finished making a blunt comparison between Ford and U.S. President Donald Trump and calling Ford a bully who "believes in an ugly, vicious brand of politics that traffics in smears and lies."

"And I guarantee you, it will get worse before it gets better," the premier said about Ford's behaviour.

Wynne was responding to a suggestion from Ford a day earlier that Liberals risk being locked up in jail for their mismanagement of taxpayer money. It wasn't the first time he'd used that kind of language, which prompted Wynne to compare his comment with Trump's "Lock her up!" slogan aimed at Hillary Clinton.

Retired Canadian Press politics reporter Keith Leslie said the tone is already vicious and Ontarians are witnessing an "unprecedented" level of nastiness.

"It's already, I think, the nastiest I've ever seen — and I've been covering Ontario elections since the '80s," said Leslie, who is now a political commentator.

It's unusual how quickly it's gotten personal between Wynne and Ford, said Leslie, and this matchup in particular is also unique compared to past elections.

"These are two super-strong personalities," he said. "What you see with these two is very much what you get — they're fighters."

The early feuding between Wynne and Ford presents a challenge for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who is also gunning for the premier's job.

"Can anybody get heard over top of Ford and Wynne going at it?" said Leslie.

The NDP released its platform Monday, but a day later the spotlight shifted back on the two other leaders.

'She's trying to push the buttons'

Even though the campaign doesn't officially begin until 28 days before the election, the Liberals have already launched television ads, a social media campaign and an entire website targeting Ford.

Liberals deny they have gone negative already and say realdougford.ca is designed to show Ontarians the truth about Ford, a former Toronto city councillor and brother of the city's late mayor Rob Ford, who was embroiled in controversy for much of his term, in part because of his admission that he smoked crack cocaine.

Ford hasn't put out a platform since he won his party's unexpected leadership race in March (former leader Patrick Brown resigned in January following sexual misconduct allegations), but that hasn't stopped the Liberals from saying Ford will cut thousands of public-sector jobs and put restrictions on access to abortions.

Some conservative pundits think Wynne is at fault for the malicious tone that is already emerging.

"I think she wants to make it a vicious campaign," said Rachel Curran, a policy director for former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Ontarians go to the polls on June 7. (Elections Ontario)

Ford called Wynne "desperate" Wednesday and said he intends to attack Wynne's record, not her personally. He went on to say she leads "the most politically corrupt government this country has ever seen."

Curran thinks Ford will stick to his plan to avoid personal attacks.

"It doesn't benefit him to go after her personally," said Curran, who now works with the former PM's consulting firm Harper & Associates. "I think people get turned off by personal attacks."

Tim Powers, another conservative strategist, said Wynne is trying to bait Ford.

"She's trying to push the buttons of Doug Ford and hope that he'll take a shot; it will miss and it will ricochet in his face," said Powers, vice-chairman of political consultancy Summa Strategies.

In the last Ontario election, when Wynne was up against Tim Hudak as PC leader, she didn't have to attack him, Powers recalled.

"The Tories the last time were their own worst enemy," he said. Hudak's promise to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs, for example, didn't go over well, and the Liberals held on to power.

This time there are two leaders who "seem to have no trouble throwing punches at each other," said Powers. 

Rob Silver, a Liberal strategist who worked for McGuinty, said the attacks so far are reasonable and come as no surprise.

"As you'd expect, this is not the croquet club," said Silver.

Silver, a political commentator on CBC's Power & Politics, said the Liberal ads targeting Ford are "not character assassination ads" but, rather, are trying to point out real, substantive policy differences.

He expects there to be a mix of character attacks and policy disputes in this campaign.

"But I don't think it's going to be nastier than other elections; I think it will be equally nasty to other elections," he said.

Just how nasty won't be determined until after voting day, but in the meantime, Leslie says it sure is interesting to watch. "For Ontario politics, this is as exciting as I've seen it."


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.