May 9, 2018 10:30 am
Updated: May 31, 2018 11:55 am

COMMENTARY: Liberals should cast Ontario election as referendum on Doug Ford

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is behind in the polls, but Liberal strategist Omar Khan says she hasn't lost the election yet.


Dear Ontario Liberals,

Please keep calm and go knock on doors.

Yes, public polling, including data released Tuesday by Global News and Ipsos, show us behind. It’s also true that we face an uphill climb this election, but we have been here before.

Don’t forget that we entered the 2007, 2011 and 2014 election campaigns as underdogs and won. We also went into the 1990, 1995 and 1999 elections with significant leads and lost.

WATCH ABOVE: New poll reveals Doug Ford’s rising popularity

This doesn’t mean that we should be happy about going into the campaign behind. We shouldn’t. But it means that campaigns matter and this campaign hasn’t even started yet.

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For two months Doug Ford has been surfing on slogans, innuendo and say-anything soundbites, but he cannot get away with that amidst the scrutiny of a general election campaign. As this week’s City TV debate showed, this campaign will be a referendum on Doug Ford and the kind of future he proposes to Ontarians.

We need to focus on this message as we knock on doors, attend coffee parties and talk to our neighbours. We need to remind people where Ontario was before we assumed power, how far we have come and what we risk losing.

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In 2003, we inherited a province that was reeling from eight years of cuts and chaos inflicted upon us by Ford’s mentor, Mike Harris. Like Ford, Harris said he would find “efficiencies” in government without cutting basic public services.

We know what happened next.

The Harris government fired 6,000 nurses and shuttered 28 hospitals across the province. Harris even compared laid off nurses to workers in hula hoops that had gone out of fashion in the 1960s. These measures degraded patient care and increased wait times to see specialists.

Funding for major transit projects was slashed and the Conservatives buried the partially dug Eglinton West subway line, stunting much needed transit expansion in Toronto for a generation.

Within his first two years in office Harris slashed education funding by $1 billion. This included a 25 per cent cut in funding for Ontario universities. By the time he left office Ontario’s per capita funding of colleges and universities was the lowest in Canada, leading to increased class sizes, reduced research funding and ballooning tuition fees.

WATCH BELOW: Doug Ford, Kathleen Wynne spar over tax cuts

It’s not that easy to forget the strikes, the lost services and how Ontario simply fell behind. When you speak to your neighbours, remind them and be proud of what we have accomplished since defeating the Conservatives in 2003.

We invested heavily in nurses and hospitals, resulting in lower wait times. By 2016, a Fraser Institute study showed that the median wait time — from family doctor to specialist to treatment — was the lowest of any province.

We invested in our schools and capped class sizes for kids in kindergarten through Grade 3, brought in the largest increase to post-secondary education funding in a generation and made tuition free for over 200,000 students.

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We invested in infrastructure upgrades including schools, hospitals, public transit, roads and bridges. This investment has created on average 125,000 well-paying jobs a year and has paid for transit projects like Ottawa’s Confederation and Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown LRT lines.

These investments help people by growing our economy. Today, Ontario’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in a generation and our economic growth has been leading the G7 for four years in a row.

But we need to ensure everyone benefits from this economic growth, not just the wealthiest among us. That’s why we moved to increase the minimum wage so that people working full-time jobs don’t need to rely on food banks. That’s why we want to make pre-school free for young families putting, on average, $17,000 back into the pockets of moms and dads.

That’s why we led the fight for enhanced pensions nationally, so that our seniors can retire with dignity.

These advances, and much more, are at stake in this election.

READ MORE: How the 2018 Liberal budget will affect Ontario families

Doug Ford’s first campaign promise is to slash $6 billion out of government spending. One economist has estimated that this could lead to up to 75,000 job losses in the public sector. That means fewer nurses, teachers, water inspectors and social workers. Do we need to remind Ontarians of what happened in Walkerton when Harris cut water inspectors?

Ford needs to do this because he also plans to cut Ontario corporate taxes, already among the lowest in Canada, by about a billion dollars a year. That’s taking money out of the pockets of families and putting it into the hands of the one per cent.

This is the choice for Ontarians on June 7 and it’s more important than ever to get out there and talk to people, have the discussions and share our vision for the future. Being an underdog may not seem advantageous but we can never be underestimated because with our record and our vision, we can win.

Just like in the last three elections.

Omar Khan spent over a decade working for several Liberal cabinet Ministers at Queen’s Park and is a vice president of the Ontario Liberal Party.

Omar Khan joins Deb Hutton and Tom Parkin on Global News’ regular political panel, appearing on Global Toronto and AM 640 Corus radio throughout the campaign and as part of our election night coverage.


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