TORONTO—The new year is expected to start the unofficial countdown to Ontario's June election, with key pledges from the governing Liberals kicking in and the Tories working hard to sell their early platform.
Avid political watchers may feel as though the campaign already is in full swing, with the Progressive Conservatives—ahead in the polls—already having nominated most of their candidates and releasing their platform more than six months before the vote.
The Liberals, meanwhile, are flogging their main election message of fairness at every opportunity.
But so far, the majority of Ontarians haven't been paying attention, said University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman.
“I don't think it's on their radar,” he remarked.
Most people won't even have noticed the PC platform being released, Wiseman noted.
“I don't think it matters one iota," he stressed. "Nobody is sitting around leafing through their 78-page program.”
That will ramp up in the new year, Premier Kathleen Wynne predicted.
“Once there are set election dates in place, then everyone knows when the election's going to be, which is the point,” she told The Canadian Press.
“But it means that there's more strategic positioning that goes on earlier, I would say,” she added.
“Definitely, as we go through the next session when the legislature comes back in February it will definitely [heat up].”
As of Jan. 1, two of the Liberals' major plans, which will form key parts of their re-election bid, come into effect—a $14-an-hour minimum wage, that would rise to $15 in 2019, and pharmacare for youth under 25 years old.
Those programs are two examples of how the Liberals have been describing their plan as one of fairness and opportunity—a theme that will carry through to June.
“Creating fairness is what I think government exists to do,” Wynne said.
“It's always been at the heart of what I believe about elected office,” she noted.
“Opportunity, when we think about growth and we think about how the economy needs to flourish in Ontario and in Canada, that's about creating opportunity.”
Much energy also will be spent in the new year contrasting the parties' plans, Wynne signalled.
In the weeks since the PC platform release, the Liberals already have attacked their promises on child care, a carbon tax, mental health funding, and a value-for-money audit.
“I think it's only fair to people in the province that they have a sense of what we all stand for,” Wynne argued.
“These next few weeks and months are going to be about yes, making those contrasts, but most importantly, stating emphatically and reinforcing emphatically who we are and what we believe in.”
A major factor working against Wynne in the election—along with her dismal approval ratings—likely will be that the Liberals will have been in power for 15 years by the time the vote rolls around.
Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown said by now people know what the Liberals stand for and he will work to get his message out, continuing to flog his platform around the province as he did late this year in an election-style bus.
“I work endless hours and talk at every town-hall and every cultural function and every community function I can,” he said in an interview.
“Certainly we're encouraged by the fact that where we get to know people it's going pretty well for us.”
Brown noted that in byelections his party has taken seats away from the Liberals, party membership is up to nearly 200,000 from a low of around 12,000 after the 2014 election, and the PCs recently have fundraised far larger sums than the Liberals.
One of Brown's biggest challenges remains that polling consistently shows half of Ontarians don't know who he is.
The Tories have been trying to combat that with TV ads featuring Brown and having him tour the province.
“I'm just going to be myself,” he remarked.
“I think there will be closer scrutiny of the three different political parties and the three leaders as we gear up for the election.”
NDP leader Andrea Horwath said her party will roll out policies over the next several months, acknowledging their underdog status.
“People see us as the third party," she conceded. ”We don't have the most seats in the legislature . . . we have the smallest team.
“But many people say we punch above our weight,” Horwath added.
“That's because we focus on listening to people and trying to bring forward ideas that will bring forward positive changes in people's lives.”