Ontario PC Race A Battle Between Pragmatists, Populists
Michael Adams, Tony Coulson
Michael Adams is the co-founder of Environics and author of Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. Tony Coulson is Group Vice-President, Corporate and Public Affairs, at Environics Research.
As Carleton University political scientist Jonathan Malloy wrote in a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party is a house divided. In its heyday, the party was a big-tent organization, governing from 1943 to 1985. It turned right during the Mike Harris years in the 1990s, and since then has lacked a clear position – neither consistently right-wing nor centrist.
Under the leadership of Patrick Brown, the PCs shifted to the centre, courting swing voters with a platform that includes a carbon tax and investments in child care and mental-health services – alongside tax cuts and other more traditionally conservative fare. It’s a moderate mix of pocketbook and other issues.
From a social-values perspective, Ontario PC supporters are – not surprisingly – quite conservative. They hold relatively traditional views around family structures, gender roles and religion. They are somewhat more likely than other partisans, for example, to believe that “the father of the family must be the master in his own home.”
Ontario PC supporters also score high on values related to authority: They believe that those in positions of authority deserve deference, and value rule-following over flexibility and questioning. Law and order works for this crowd.
Ontario’s PC base prioritizes economic issues more strongly than others do. They support economic development, even at the expense of pollution or environmental damage. They express more concern about their personal economic futures, prefer private-sector solutions to societal problems (linked to their stronger-than-average trust in big business) and favour strict limits on the role of government. They are less likely than other Ontarians to worry about the environment or to prioritize environmentally friendly products or companies. A carbon tax won’t play well with this crowd.
Supporters of the Ontario Liberal party hold quite different values. They are more open and flexible in terms of family structures, relations between generations and hierarchy in organizations. They reject patriarchy and question traditional authority – both religious and secular.
Many Ontario Liberals consider themselves to be “citizens of the world” rather than “citizens of one community or country.” They also stand out in their belief that it’s valuable to meet and converse with different kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds. Unlike some in the Conservative camp, many Liberals are at ease in a multicultural Ontario, and less insistent that newcomers must set aside aspects of their identities in order to assimilate.
Ontario Liberals are less likely to believe that environmental problems are an acceptable cost of doing business. They believe people and industries can and should prevent ecological harm, and fix any damage they’ve done – even if it costs money, jobs or growth.
Ontario NDP supporters hold many of the same values as Liberals, in relation to family, authority, multiculturalism and the environment.
They are distinct from both Liberals and Conservatives in terms of their approach to consumerism, carefully evaluating their needs before making purchases and giving preference to functional and practical products.
New Democrats also stand out in terms of how little importance they place on religion.
Ontario New Democrat supporters score high on civic engagement, believing in their ability to make a difference in society, and they express the strongest faith in government, believing that governments perform socially beneficial functions. They favour more rather than less government involvement in resolving society’s problems.
Looking at Ontario’s partisans through a social-values lens underscores their key differences and puts the PC conundrum into useful perspective. Despite its recent troubles, the party leads with support in the mid-30s – but as those who crafted the current platform recognized, the party needs more centrist voters in order to form a government in June.
The party’s leadership contest promises to reveal the stark contrast between the pragmatists and the populists
At the same time, ignoring the values of the party’s base risks bad feelings on the hard right and puts party unity at risk. The Brown-era platform is red meat for leadership candidate Doug Ford, allowing him to target “elites” and criticize their willingness to trade off conservative values in their efforts to appeal to centrist voters seeking an alternative to Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals.
The party’s leadership contest promises to reveal the stark contrast between the pragmatists and the populists.
Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again after the vote for leader on March 10 and driving a coherent, unified election campaign through to June will be a challenge for any new leader – whether the would-be unifier is an establishment centrist with a long record (or a familiar name), or a Trump-like populist such as former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s big brother, Doug.
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