If Premier Doug Ford is wondering why his support has collapsed in public opinion polls, he need look no further than the town of Clinton, an hour’s drive north of London in the heart of lush Huron County farmland.
There he will find chartered accountant Paul Seebach, also a certified financial planner and proprietor of a financial services firm that bears his name. Last June, he voted for the local Progressive Conservative incumbent, Lisa Thompson, now education minister.
“It almost looks like they just weren’t ready to be in government,” the 59-year-old tells the Star.
He refers to a backlash over sex education, funding of autism treatment, class sizes and a spring budget that first appeared benign but now has Ford and his cabinet ministers on the defensive daily over revelations of a stream of cuts to municipal and health unit funding, stem cell and artificial intelligence research, children’s aid, tree planting, flood protection and more.
The cuts include $177 million to the City of Toronto this year, sparking a war of words between Mayor John Tory and Ford, who has twice been booed by crowds recently and is dealing with the departure of four key staff members.
Warning she is “fearful for the future of the Progressive Conservative Party” and “concerned about the future of Ontario” over cuts to municipal funding, Bifolchi says its time for the premier to slow down and listen to Tories like her.
“When long-time Conservatives start to question the direction that we’re going in, that’s fearful to me,” she says.
Seebach says he is tiring of the government’s fumbles of sensitive, high-profile issues — something pollster John Corbett said has disappointed many voters who wanted “a firm, steady hand” in the premier’s office.
Rob Leone, a former Progressive Conservative MPP from Cambridge, acknowledges smooth handling of challenging files has not been the government’s strong suit, but notes it’s not unusual for a premier and a government making tough decisions to slide in popularity.
“The communication of what’s happening is in need of a revision,” said Leone, who has a doctorate in political science, teaches at Niagara University in Lewiston, N.Y., and is a consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto.
Seebach describes the review and reform of the previous Liberal government’s sex education curriculum, which Ford deemed too graphic, as “totally screwed up.” Only minor tweaks were made after students, parents and opposition parties fought to keep the modernized lessons in place.
“He’ll do something and then he’ll back off, like autism … it was just handled terribly and then they backed off,” Seebach commented of changes in funding for treatment that initially infuriated families of children on the spectrum.
“It’s the same in education, and now they’re going to give money back” in a bid to make sure no teachers lose their jobs as a result of larger class sizes, and to help school boards find administrative savings, the veteran accountant adds on the telephone from his busy office.
“My biggest thing would be they don’t seem to have a plan. Obviously, he (Ford) wouldn’t be your first choice to be premier.”
Recent polls suggest Seebach is not alone in that view.
While Ford won a solid majority of seats in the legislature with 40.5 per cent of the popular vote, a poll released Thursday by Mainstreet Research put his PCs back to third place at 22.4 per cent behind interim Liberal leader John Fraser at 39.9 per cent and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath at 24.2 per cent.
Ford’s net favourability rating (calculated by subtracting the proportion of those who disapprove from those who approve) is -53.5 per cent, almost 20 points lower than Wynne’s -35.3 per cent last April prior to the June 7 election in which her party was decimated and reduced to just seven seats, below the threshold for official party status and the taxpayer funding that comes with it.
“We have never seen an incumbent premier reach these depths in popular opinion with barely a year into his mandate,” said Mainstreet president Quito Maggi, whose poll surveyed 996 Ontarians on May 20 and 21. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 per cent and is accurate 19 times out of 20.
Another poll released the week of May 20 by Pollara Strategic Insights puts his PCs at 30 per cent, slightly behind Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats at 31 per cent, the Liberals under interim leader John Fraser at 26 per cent and Mike Schreiner’s Greens at 11 per cent.
The survey found 64 per cent of respondents disapprove of the government, with 30 per cent approving and six per cent unsure. Of those who voted for Conservative candidates last June, 70 per cent said it was to “get rid of the Kathleen Wynne Liberals” and just 21 per cent said they “like Doug Ford.”
“Ford’s base support across Ontario is about 25 per cent,” said Corbett, whose firm will release another poll in June. “What swept him into power was the extra 15 per cent or so of fiscal Conservatives and principled Conservatives who were just sick of Kathleen Wynne and would have voted for the dogcatcher.”
Indeed, Ford’s core supporters appear to be standing firm with him.
“Doug’s doing the right thing because you have to make these cuts. There is no money,” says Rexdale resident Sandra Pavan, who has volunteered on campaigns for Rob Ford and later Doug Ford for almost 20 years.
The 71-year-old office worker and grandmother is annoyed at critics who are “jumping down his throat” and describes him as having a heart of gold.
“Give him time,” adds Pavan, who also rejects criticism of the way Ford tried to make his friend, veteran Toronto police superintendent Ron Taverner commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police despite the fact the OPP could be called on to investigate the government.
“Knowing the Fords there is no way they will turn around and pull favours,” Pavan said. “There are other people that play games. The Fords don’t.”
An Environics Research poll released this week found 75 per cent of respondents believe Ford’s PCs are on the “wrong track.” Among PC voters from last June 37 per cent said the government is on the wrong track and 61 per cent put Ford on the right track.
“It took a few years for the Wynne government to get that high on the wrong track number and even that was at the end of 15 years in government,” Environics vice-president Derek Leebosh told the Star’s Robert Benzie.
Ford dismissed the Environics poll, conducted for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, calling it “biased.” But its right track/wrong track findings were similar to Pollara’s.
The premier said last week “the only poll that counts is on election day” and insists he gets glowing reviews from average voters in his travels.
“When I’m out there, I talk to people in the factories, and I’m out there almost every single day in factories, I hear nothing but positive remarks … the number one comment I hear is ‘keep going,’” he told a news conference in Ajax.
“Our budget was reasonable, it was responsible and most of all it was thoughtful,” Ford added. “We have some people on the far right saying you should have cut more, people on the far left you cut too much. So we’re right down the middle on it.”
From her office in Wasaga Beach, Bifolchi is urging Ford’s own MPPs, whom she knows are getting feedback on local concerns, to “speak to the premier” — particularly with the October federal election a few months away.
“People do need to be aware. The general population doesn’t necessarily differentiate between provincial and federal. There’s a federal election coming this year and I think both the provincial and federal representatives need to keep that in mind.”
Federal Conservative insiders have privately told the Star they worry concerns about the Ford government — which canvassers are hearing as they go door-knocking — will hurt their support in the October election.
Ford is also facing a fight from Toronto Mayor Tory, a former PC leader who has started a petition against public health cuts and won support from former PC health minister Dennis Timbrell, who served in the government of Bill Davis in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Calling public health services a “bedrock” that should not be subject to retroactive cuts, Timbrell had some words of advice for Ford, with whom he sympathized for inheriting a multibillion dollar deficit and hefty provincial debt.
“It took 30 years to get to where it is and resolving it isn’t going to happen overnight, either.”