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Liberals call Ford’s ‘interlaying’ with federal Conservatives ‘unprecedented,’ but say they’re not worried

By Abbas Rana and Laura Ryckewaert      

Pollster Nik Nanos says Ontario Premier Doug Ford's support is 'very important' to Andrew Scheer's Conservatives, but also says Mr. Scheer has to ensure his personal brand is not 'subsumed by Doug Ford.'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Mr. Ford says he will help out Mr. Scheer win the next federal election and could help the federal party win immigrant votes in the crucial GTA area. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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The extent of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s public posturing against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and declaration that he wants to see Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as Canada’s prime minister in 2019 is unprecedented and the rationale behind the strategy is unclear, say Liberal MPs, but Conservatives says Kathleen Wynne used the same strategy as premier and some of her former top staffers now hold the most senior positions in the federal government.

“I can’t think of a time where there’s been interlaying between the provincial and federal politicians in terms of working together,” said Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen (Kingston and the Islands, Ont.) in an interview with The Hill Times. “I quite honestly don’t understand Mr. Ford’s rationale behind that.”

Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) have been publicly exchanging verbal salvos since the former was elected as the Ontario PC leader last year, and even more so since he became premier in June with a landslide majority, ousting Ms. Wynne, and ending the 15-year Liberal control of the vote-rich province, which is home to 121 of the 338 federal electoral seats.

In one of the first exchanges after becoming premier, Mr. Ford accused Mr. Trudeau of encouraging asylum seekers to “illegally” enter into Canada, putting an additional financial burden on the province to house these people. He described Mr. Trudeau’s tweet last year, in which the prime minister said, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” as the key reason why thousands of refugees have crossed into Canada from the U.S. in recent months. The provincial government then proceeded to ask the federal government to cough up $200-million to defray the cost to help settle thousands of refugees in Ontario.

In a July meeting with the premier at Queen’s Park, Mr. Trudeau responded by saying that Mr. Ford did not fully comprehend Canada’s refugee system and was not “aware of our international obligations to the UN convention on refugees as he might have been, so I spent a little bit of time explaining how the asylum system works and how our system is supposed to operate.”

More recently, Mr. Ford has described the federal government’s carbon tax as a “vote-buying scheme” and has publicly made numerous statements opposing this policy. In response, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc (Beausejour, N.B.) has advised the premier to focus on Ontario and not meddle in federal political issues. Last month, Mr. Ford declined to meet with the federal minister due to “scheduling constraints.”

And after Ford government’s announcement to cancel a planned French-language university and scrap the office of the French-language services commissioner, Mr. Trudeau told reporters he was disappointed with the decision. Last week, reporters asked Mr. Ford if he was planning on running for prime minister, after he called on the federal government to scrap the carbon tax, but the premier denied that he had any such ambition.

In recent weeks, the federal Liberals have been using Mr. Ford’s public statements, expressing his desire “to get rid of Trudeau,” along with the Conservative opposition to carbon tax to raise funds.

“Yesterday, Andrew Scheer travelled to meet Doug Ford at Queen’s Park—and they couldn’t have been more clear about their priorities,” read one fundraising letter from the Liberal Party to supporters. “‘Getting rid of Justin Trudeau,'” Ford said after the meeting. We’re not surprised. Conservatives have no plan to fight climate change, and instead they’re doubling down on the same inaction that we saw under 10 years of Stephen Harper. They want to take money out of the pockets of middle class Canadians and make pollution free again—but with your support, we won’t let that happen.”

Meanwhile, Liberal MPs interviewed by The Hill Times last week conceded that it’s not unusual for provincial premiers to help out their federal cousins, but they said they were referring to the degree of Mr. Ford’s involvement in federal politics. They described the Ontario premier’s strategy as an attempt to “disrupt” the government’s agenda, referring to Mr. Ford’s opposition to the carbon tax, and disagreed that Ms. Wynne used to do the same when she was in office and Mr. Harper was the prime minister.

“The difference is that his [Mr. Ford’s] position in the way that he’s going about it, is a much more controversial, spiteful things that he’s doing to influence rather than talking to people and being supportive,” said Mr. Gerretsen. “He’s actually out there trying to disrupt the agenda of the federal government.”

However, Mr. Gerretsen and other Liberal MPs said Mr. Ford’s forays into the federal political arena are unlikely to affect their party in 2019.

“I don’t think it’s effective outside of the base that he supports, and I certainly don’t think it’s effective in properly representing the people of Ontario,” said Mr. Gerretsen adding that, as premier, Mr. Ford should be willing to work with any prime minister Canadians elect.

Liberal MPs also said they’re not worried either about the work of Ontario Proud, a Conservative online advocacy group, which is seen by some as having been instrumental in helping Mr. Ford win the June provincial election. The same organization, led by Jeff Ballingall, a former Conservative staffer during the Stephen Harper government, is working to defeat the federal Liberals.

In the provincial election, according to Mr. Ballingall, his organization’s content was viewed 63.4 million times on Facebook, and tweets were viewed 2.1 million times. He said that to defeat the provincial Liberals, his organization sent out more than one million text messages, made 2.5 million phone calls, and 15,000 brochures were distributed at transit stations. He said that his advocacy group played a big part in defeating the provincial Liberals.

Jeff Ballingall says that federal Liberals should watch out as his advocacy group, Ontario Proud, is gearing up to target Mr. Trudeau in the next election. Photograph courtesy of Jeff Ballingall

“We were able to reach millions and millions of people and mobilize them to help defeat the Ontario Liberals,” said Mr. Ballingall, who also previously worked at the public affairs organization, Navigator.

Today, Mr. Ballingall said his group is gearing up to get ready for the 2019 election and Mr. Trudeau will be the target of their campaign. He said that as a third-party, his advocacy group works independently and does not “take orders” from anyone.

“We’re growing across the country, we’re meeting new people, hiring new people, we’re raising money, we’re constantly putting out videos that go viral against the Trudeau government,” said Mr. Ballingall. “[When we started Ontario Proud in 2016], Kathleen Wynne was our initial focus, and Trudeau was our secondary, but now we’re focussing on Trudeau.”

Mr. Ballingall declined to say how much money his group raised or how much money was spent in the last provincial campaign, saying that he would provide this information to Elections Ontario next month. Mr. Ballingall said his organization wants to raise “a lot of” money for the next federal election campaign. Under the current rules, third parties can spend up to $200,000 in a federal election campaign, but this is expected to change with Bill C-76 which is still before Parliament. Mr. Ballingall said that Ontario Proud would target Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals in 2019 on pipelines, the economy, defence, and the ethical lapses of this government’s senior ministers, including Mr. Trudeau.

“His inability to get the pipelines built; his broken promises on balancing the budget; his inability to even tell us when we’re going to balance the budget; our crumbling military; his ethical lapses; his arrogance; and just how his values are out of sync with everyday Canadians,” said Mr. Ballingall will be some of the subjects of his organization’s narrative why Liberals should not be re-elected in 2019.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York, Ont.) said he does not consider the campaign from Ontario Proud, or Mr. Ford’s help to Mr. Scheer as a serious threat to his party’s re-election next time around.

“Doug Ford listens to nobody but himself, and Andrew Scheer listens to nobody but Doug Ford, I’m not worried,” said Mr. Vaughan, parliamentary secretary to Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos (Quebec, Que.).

As for the statistics that Mr. Ballingall provided about his advocacy group’s ability to reach out to millions of people in the last provincial election, Mr. Vaughan said he had no way to confirm the numbers, and therefore no way to gauge the actual impact of Ontario Proud’s campaign in the June election.

“Folks like Rebel Media and Ontario Proud talk to themselves,” said Mr. Vaughan. “They have arguments with their own friends about things they agree with already. I wouldn’t take it too seriously.”

Mr. Gerretsen agreed with Mr. Vaughan’s point, and added that there’s no way to figure out exactly what affect the Ontario Proud campaign had on the outcome of the next election.

“They were feeding a narrative that a lot of people had already kind of bought into and were already supportive,” said Mr. Gerretsen. “They do a good job of reiterating the message, of their base. Once people identify the source, in particular the ones that are social media savvy and may understand who is delivering the message, then they lose credibility.”

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs told The Hill Times that Mr. Ford could help the federal Conservatives in winning the immigrant vote, especially in the GTA area. They said that Jason Kenney previously played a key role in attracting the immigrant communities to their party, which helped them in winning the 2006, 2008 and 2011 elections. Now that Mr. Kenney is out of the federal political arena, Mr. Ford could prove to be an asset in the about 50 GTA ridings where the new immigrant vote plays a key role in deciding the outcome.

Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen, centre, says he fails to understand the rationale why Doug Ford is getting involved in federal politics. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

“We’ve got to crack Toronto,” said four-term Conservative MP Dave Van Kesteren (Chatham-Kent-Leamington, Ont.), chair of the Ontario Conservative caucus, who is not seeking re-election. “If there’d be one area that I think we can be successful [with help from Mr. Ford], and should be successful, it’s with the immigrant population. Obviously, Doug and his team have been very successful in attracting that group. That would be an area, I think.”

Mr. Van Kesteren dismissed the Liberal MPs’ concern that Mr. Ford’s involvement in federal politics is unprecedented, arguing that Ms. Wynne publicly clashed with Mr. Harper. Also, he pointed out that some of the PMO’s most senior staffers like Gerald Butts, principal secretary, and Katie Telford, chief of staff, in the past worked for Ms. Wynne and were top officials in the 2015 election campaign.

In the last election, the Trudeau Liberals won 80 of the 121 federal seats in Ontario. The Conservatives won 33 seats and the New Democrats eight. The redistribution of electoral boundaries prior to the last election increased the number of seats from 106 to 121. In 2015, the Liberal boost in seats in Ontario was a stark change from the 2011 election, when Liberals won only 11, the Conservatives 73, and the New Democrats 22.

Of the 338 national seats, Ontario is home to more than one-third, and plays a critical role in deciding the outcome of any federal election. Quebec has 78 federal seats, the second highest, British Columbia 42, Alberta 34, Saskatchewan and Manitoba 14 each, 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, and one each in Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.

Five-term Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.), who is also not seeking re-election in 2019, said the federal Conservatives have some concerns about the cancelling of Franco-Ontarian services that Mr. Ford announced recently, but the premier is known to keep his word and that gives him credibility with the party base and potential supporters.

“Any man that does what he says he’s going to do and then comes and stands up for Andrew Scheer, I think, it will be good for Mr. Scheer, as will the other Conservative premiers across this country,” said Mr. Tilson.

He said that Mr. Ford could make joint appearances with Mr. Scheer before and during the campaign, which would be helpful for the federal Conservatives.

Conservative MPs interviewed for this article also said that considering that the provincial and federal riding boundaries in Ontario are almost the same, the Conservative provincial riding associations, and federal Conservative ones could work together to win more seats in 2019.

Nik Nanos, chair of Nanos Research, said having the premier of Canada’s most populous province, Mr. Ford, on side with the federal Conservatives is about appealing to Ontarians who aren’t necessarily Conservative voters, but who are disappointed with the Liberal government.

Ontario, particularly suburban Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area, will be a key federal battleground for the Conservatives in 2019, said Mr. Nanos, and in turn, having its new premier, Mr. Ford, on side with Mr. Scheer’s federal Conservatives “is critical.”

“In terms of influence on the ground and organizationally, [Mr. Ford] has an exceptional amount of influence,” Mr. Nanos told The Hill Times.

“He’s the premier of the biggest province in the country. So, in terms of organizational muscle, he’s a key player in the province of Ontario for any conservative, provincial or federal, for any conservative candidate.”

Mr. Ford’s support for Mr. Scheer is a signal to organizers and donors to get involved, said Mr. Nanos. Along with organization on the ground, he said Mr. Ford has a proven track record of doing well in suburban Ontario. Federal Conservatives do well in rural Ontario, said Mr. Nanos, but if the party really wants a “breakthrough” in 2019, it has to “break into the suburbs.”

Moreover, jobs and the economy are traditionally key issues among Ontario voters, and having Mr. Ford actively backing his federal Conservative cousins is about appealing to people who aren’t necessarily conservative voters, but who are disappointed with the Liberal government, said Mr. Nanos.

“Whether you love him or you don’t love him, [Mr. Ford] has a very pro-jobs, pro-economy perspective. He’s very pro-business, and he clearly wants to stake out that territory for himself,” he said.

While having Mr. Ford’s support is “very important” to Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives, Mr. Nanos warned that at the same time, the federal leader needs to ensure he doesn’t have “his personal brand subsumed by Doug Ford, where he’s just kind of seen as being another Ford-type candidate.”

The Liberals needs to mobilize progressive voters in 2019, and Mr. Nanos said, “it’s a lot easier for them to run against Doug Ford than Andrew Scheer.”

“What we’re seeing is both the Liberals and the Conservatives playing politics at the national level but using provincial bickering to try to achieve their goals,” he said.

Mr. Nanos said one narrative that Mr. Scheer, with the help of Mr. Ford, is likely to try to push, and which the Liberals need to “watch out for is that the Liberals are losing, they’ve been losing elections,” from Ontario to Quebec to New Brunswick. While Mr. Kenney has also been vocal in criticizing the federal Liberals, Mr. Nanos noted that unlike in Ontario, Alberta isn’t a key battleground province and is likely to swing Conservative either way.

In terms of Ontario Proud’s role in this conservative collaboration, Mr. Nanos said it’s likely to “mobilize” third-party organizations on the left “to try to even the playing field” in the next election.

“We’re going to see war on social media between third parties [in 2019] as they try to influence voters right across the board,” he said.

Ontario Proud has attracted plenty of attention since launching in 2016, but it’s far from the only third-party group actively engaging in the Canadian political process.

Garry Keller, a former Conservative staffer and now a vice-president at StrategyCorp, noted that the vast majority of the 115 third parties who registered with Elections Canada to advertise during the 2015 federal election were groups on the left opposed to the Harper government (including some “explicitly” aimed against Mr. Harper, like the group Voters Against Harper, or 101 Reasons to Vote Against Harper). Other groups include organizations like LeadNow and powerful unions like Unifor.

“The left has benefitted for a long time with third-party organizations mobilizing both federally and provincially, and having a third party on the right do it, I think, is simply just an even rebalancing,” Mr. Keller said, adding that Ontario Proud is not formally affiliated with the Ontario PCs or the federal Conservatives.

What makes groups like Ontario Proud effective, said Mr. Keller, is the ability to quickly reach out to a large number of people, beyond the traditional voter base of parties, with “very strong, simple messaging that they can get out quickly and that’s attractive to supporters” and which helps amplify and “drive messages at the federal and provincial level.”

In terms of Mr. Ford’s support, Mr. Keller said federal Conservatives are eager to see the same voting coalition that just vaulted the Ontario PCs to majority government help the federal party win key seats in the GTA and 905-region, areas he called “very winnable for the Conservatives in 2019.”

“Anything that Andrew Scheer and his team can do to also take advantage of the infrastructure that’s already in place in those key ridings, I think that’s actually a smart play,” he said.

Collaboration between federal leaders and their provincial counterparts isn’t unusual—Mr. Trudeau got a hand from Ms. Wynne, albeit to a lesser degree given different circumstances in popularity in 2015, for example—but Mr. Nanos noted the Ontario PCs haven’t always had good relations with its federal cousins, noting for example the “awkward relationship” between the Mulroney government and former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

“With the Conservatives being united, they’re much more of a factor,” he said.

Mr. Keller agreed that while the Ontario PCs and federal Conservatives “didn’t work so closely together” in the past, he said “it’s becoming obvious that there’s a willingness by both sides to work closer together in the lead up to 2019.”

Editor’s note: This story incorrectly referred to Rabble Media in Liberal MP Adam Vaughan’s quote, but Mr. Vaughan was talking about Rebel Media. The quote has been corrected and updated. 

The Hill Times 

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