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After nearly 6 years in power, Doug Ford's PCs start casting eyes on next election

Ontario Progressive Conservative members listen to a speech by Premier Doug Ford at the party's policy conference in Niagara Falls on Feb. 3. (Mike Crawley/CBC - image credit)
Ontario Progressive Conservative members listen to a speech by Premier Doug Ford at the party's policy conference in Niagara Falls on Feb. 3. (Mike Crawley/CBC - image credit)

Based on recent history, any Ontario premier who is midway through their second term in office ought to be looking over their shoulder with great concern.

In the past 40 years in this province, only one person has led their party to more than two election victories, and Dalton McGuinty was hobbled with a minority in that third win.

Yet here is Premier Doug Ford, two majorities under his belt, nearing six years in office, and his PCs are sitting comfortably ahead in various publicly reported polls. That's despite the Greenbelt scandal and the ongoing RCMP investigation into it, despite the high cost of living eating into people's paycheques, and despite new leaders helming the opposition NDP and Liberals.

Perhaps that's why the mood was so upbeat among the Progressive Conservative members and political staffers at the party's policy conference this weekend in Niagara Falls.

The conference was the first gathering of its kind for the party since Ford admitted he'd been wrong to give developers the right to build housing on Greenbelt land, apologized for breaking his promise not to touch the protected area, and scrapped the policy that he'd been pushing for nearly a year.

He did all that in September in a Niagara Falls parking lot, just around the corner from the site of this weekend's party conference. While it may seem early to even think of the 2026 election, Ford's party held the conference both to hear from the PC grassroots about potential campaign ideas, and to shower a little love on them.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre, responds to questions from the opposition during question period at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2023.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre, responds to questions from the opposition during question period at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2023.

Ford stands during question period, surrounded by several members of his PC caucus, at Queen's Park on Dec. 6, 2023. The Legislature is on its winter break and is scheduled to resume Feb. 20. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"It's because of our members that we were first elected in 2018," Ford told a crowd of about 1,000 during his keynote speech on Saturday evening. "And it was because of you, our members, that we received an even bigger majority mandate in 2022."

How big an achievement would a third straight majority be for Ford? No Ontario politician has accomplished that since the 1950s.

Turning slogan into action?

Ford's speech was the only part of the PC conference open to media. He made no new announcements in the speech, instead focused on touting the province's economy and listing off his government's achievements.

"Bringing prosperity the likes of which this province has never seen before," Ford said as he neared his conclusion. "Friends, together we will get it done."

"Get it done" was of course the PC campaign slogan in the last election. To win the next election, according to party insiders, Ford needs to show voters that his government turned that catchphrase into action.

"They're pushing forward on hospital builds, long-term care builds, schools," said Laryssa Waler, a Conservative strategist who previously worked as Ford's director of communications.

Premier Doug Ford is pictured during a news conference announcing the provincial government's plan to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores, at a Circle K convenience store in Etobicoke on Dec. 14, 2023.
Premier Doug Ford is pictured during a news conference announcing the provincial government's plan to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores, at a Circle K convenience store in Etobicoke on Dec. 14, 2023.

Ford is pictured during a news conference announcing the provincial government's plan to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores, at a Circle K convenience store in Etobicoke on Dec. 14, 2023. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

"You need those shovels in the ground well before an election. You really want some of those projects finished before the election, so that you can show progress and you can show that you're really responding to the needs of Ontarians," Waler said in an interview in Niagara Falls over the weekend.

Karl Baldauf, who served as a senior political adviser in the government's first term and is now senior vice president of the public affairs firm McMillan Vantage, says Ford needs to remain focused on things that are important to people, including affordability and jobs.

"These are the types of things that are going to keep the party in power, and I think there's a real focus by this party to not waver from that," said Baldauf in an interview in Niagara Falls.

A similar strategy is recommended by Kayla Iafelice, another former Ford advisor, now vice president of strategic communications at Wellington Advocacy, an Ottawa-based public affairs firm.

"They really do need to focus on those everyday pocketbook issues that matter to real, basic, regular Ontarians," said Iafelice in a phone interview.

She said Ford should take a "back to the basics" approach.

"He's got to get back to his bread and butter, which is that really old style retail, pocketbook politics, drive those policies forward that are actually going to bring tangible outcomes for people in Ontario."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, and Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie toured a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic for Peel Region in March 2021.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, and Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie toured a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic for Peel Region in March 2021.

In March 2021, Ford toured a COVID-19 vaccination clinic along with Bonnie Crombie, then-mayor of Mississauga. Now Crombie is Ford's rival as leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

In his speech, Ford did not mention the official opposition NDP, nor its leader Marit Stiles. But he did take the time to go after the new leader of the third-place Liberals, Bonnie Crombie, and her record as former mayor of Mississauga.

"Bonnie has never seen a tax she didn't like," said Ford. "During her time as mayor, she jacked up property taxes, and is fighting every day [against] building Highway 413," (the proposed new highway across the northwestern edge of the Greater Toronto Area.)

The Liberals issued a statement immediately after Ford's speech.

"The Conservatives like to talk about getting it done but, in fact, have spent more money doing less than any government in Ontario's history," said Crombie in the statement.

The Liberals say they'll be "listening to real people across this province" in grassroots policy discussions to be launched this year, with the aim of defeating Ford in the next election.