Politicians will revisit the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GHTA) many times in the weeks between now and election day. And for good reason: this seat-rich region can make or break electoral fortunes. Despite losing the popular vote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was able to hold on to a plurality of seats following the 2019 election in large part due to his strength in Toronto.
But in 2021, that strength may be in danger. From the left, the Liberals will be challenged by well-funded and energetic New Democratic Party (NDP), who are critiquing the Prime Minister’s record of saying the right things but very rarely following through. From the right, the Conservative Party has defied expectations to draw even with (and in certain polls exceeding) the Liberals– even as they suffer from an inefficient electoral coalition due to Canada’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system.
So it’s only right that, like the campaigns, we revisit the GTHA, bringing you two more issues that will drive voter decision-making at the polls. If you missed it, check our Part One where we cover housing, small business and child care.
Although housing may be like the weather, the weather itself may also rear its head as an election issue, as Canada is gripped by historic heatwaves, and the skies of Toronto and Vancouver find themselves frequently clouded with smoke from wildfires.
These are the effects of climate change – and although the wildest weather events this year happened in the Western provinces, climate is on voters’ minds in the GTHA. The data confirms this: a survey we recently conducted found that 70 per cent of Ontarians ‘agree’ that “we can no longer keep playing politics with climate change.”
While younger voters consistently rank climate as among their most important issues, this voting population makes up a significant percentage of key downtown ridings like Davenport – a must-win riding for the NDP – and the Liberal government’s record on climate has put them on the defensive.
For their part, the Liberals oversaw the implementation of a national carbon price, in spite of a spirited challenge from not just the federal Conservatives but from a coalition of provincial governments, from Alberta to Ontario, who oppose the policy. The Liberals also propose to strengthen climate measures should they be the next government, with promises to invest in green industry and technology, to invest in transition away from fossil fuels in the West and in Newfoundland, and to subsidize zero-emission vehicles and home retrofits.
But these advancements must be contrasted with their support for Canada’s oil and gas industry – including both substantially increasing aid to the struggling sector and nationalizing the much-maligned Trans-Mountain pipeline despite running against Northern Gateway in 2015. Though these moves are likely very welcomed in Alberta, on the doorsteps of Parkdale-High Park and Toronto-Danforth, the Liberals’ record might find a very different reception.
In a political environment where the Green Party is historically weak, and with progressive voters so far deaf to Liberal pleas to vote strategically, we can expect the New Democrats to sense the opportunity. They will likely go on the offensive, undermining the Liberal party’s position on the issue of climate by pointing out that the same party whose leader marched in the Climate Strike, and whose base enthusiastically endorsed a Green New Deal at its 2021 convention, bought an oil pipeline to save it from demise.
The Conservatives, for their part, have finally found their answer to Trudeau’s carbon price: a “Personal Low Carbon Savings Account,” where the proceeds of a carbon price are deposited into a personal account, for the purchase of environmentally-friendly goods and services. This is a proposal that is in keeping with consumer trends: our survey found that 64% of Ontario respondents agree that “if money were no object I would switch to an emissions-free vehicle tomorrow.”
Progressive voters may scoff at this plan, despite it being in keeping with their preferences: although 64% of Ontarians would prefer an emissions-free vehicle, that statistic drops to 36% within a group of decided Conservative voters. But the details of the plan may be less important than the fact of its existence: as CPC can finally say that it has a credible plan on climate, the effectiveness of the issue as a wedge is blunted, and the Tories can move on to friendlier issues.
Infrastructure + Transportation
While not the most high-profile department in government, infrastructure tends to be counted among the small handful of “good news” ministries – those on which governments can rely to stabilize the news cycle, pad the governing party’s record, and keep unforeseen issues to a bare minimum. That’s because infrastructure spending eventually transforms from something ethereal and remote into things people can see, touch, feel, or experience.
Despite its perennial status as the most populous and one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions anywhere in Canada, the GTHA has been plagued by decades of chronic under-investment in public infrastructure, and in particular, transit and transportation infrastructure. Traffic and congestion in the GTHA is merciless, punishing, and exacts a significant toll on both economic growth and quality of life. Any party that relies on either the 416 or 905 to form government (read: all parties) must have at least some semblance of a plan for GTHA residents exasperated by the traffic.
The Liberal party inherently has the upper hand on infrastructure investments, as it has the discretion to turn on the taps. In key regions from coast to coast, the governing Liberals have made investments that constitute both sound public policy and strong political calculus. The government has funded 1,300 transit projects since 2015, including regional flagships such as the Surrey Langley SkyTrain extension in battleground B.C., and no fewer than four major routes in the GTHA, including the Ontario Line and Hamilton LRT.
Though they control the purse strings, it’s not all sunshine for the Liberals. The party’s approach to infrastructure funding – relying as it does on private institutional investment rather than a traditional public funding model – has raised the ire of the NDP. This approach, while championed by the Liberals since 2015, has struggled to get shovels in the ground.
Whether small or large, infrastructure investments are less helpful to the air war than they are to the governing party’s ground game. You won’t see much about it in broadcast ads, but they serve two meaningful purposes: providing the party with fodder for hyperlocal, geotargeted digital ads (the Liberals have several in market now) and giving MPs highly localized, community-specific proof points to share when dropping literature or knocking on doors.
Infrastructure-related issues won’t be responsible for a national multi-point swing in voter intention – but in a hard-fought GTHA riding where the Liberals and Conservatives are in a dead heat, the right investment articulated to the right voter may make all the difference.