The day after millions of Canadian basketball fans saw attack ads portraying Andrew Scheer as a puppet of Premier Doug Ford, the federal Conservative leader insists he is his “own” man.
Federal Conservatives have told the Star they fear Ford’s declining popularity will hurt them in the Oct. 21 election, but in an exclusive interview, Scheer said he is “very optimistic about the chances of winning … a lot of seats back in Ontario.”
“Look, the difference in this federal election is going to be between myself and Justin Trudeau,” the federal Tory leader said, insisting he is different from the Ontario premier.
“I am my own person. I have my own style. I have my own approach. We’re going to be laying out our own policies,” he said.
Trudeau’s Liberals have been using Ford to vilify Scheer with cabinet ministers routinely attacking the federal Conservative leader as cast in the image of the polarizing premier.
Engage Canada, a union-backed progressive coalition, aired U.S.-style attack ads linking the two Conservatives during Monday’s Toronto Raptors-Golden State Warriors NBA Finals game.
“He’d follow Ontario Premier Doug Ford as he slashes health care and education. Scheer will never stand up to Ford,” says one 15-second spot.
Asked why his opponents are trying to tie him to Ford, the mild-mannered Scheer said: “I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask them why they think that’s effective. I think it’s because they can’t run on Justin Trudeau’s record.”
The federal Conservative leader noted there are perils to campaigning alongside an unpopular Ontario premier.
“I’d be interested to know if Justin Trudeau would be worried about Kathleen Wynne coming out to campaign for him in 2019. Is he going to invite Kathleen Wynne onstage at events?” said Scheer, drawing an analogy between Ford and the Liberal premier he defeated last year.
“If Justin Trudeau wants to make an election issue out of the situation in Ontario, we’re happy to remind people about what Kathleen Wynne did, about the people who were involved in her government,” he said, noting “many of the same” people who work for Trudeau also served Wynne and former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.
Scheer argued that voters could “avoid the types of tough decisions that are happening in Ontario” by electing Conservatives on Oct. 21.
“Justin Trudeau is going down the same unsustainable path the Ontario Liberals went down,” he said, asking Canadians to “stop the policies that created the problems that exist in Ontario.”
While Scheer has met with Ford at Queen’s Park and was the keynote speaker at the provincial Tories’ convention in November, the two leaders are not especially close.
When the premier decided last week to adjourn the Ontario legislature until one week after the federal election, Scheer was not consulted. The house, which had been scheduled to resume after the summer break on Sept. 9, will return Oct. 28.
“That’s a decision that he made, that the government of Ontario made,” said Scheer.
With Ontario instrumental to Scheer’s national success, he is anxious not to be connected to some of Ford’s more controversial moves, such as increasing school class sizes.
Seven public-opinion polls in the past month have suggested the April 11 budget has taken a toll on the premier’s popularity and there is skittishness among federal Tories about the Ford factor this fall.
A Corbett Communications survey for the Star last week found 54 per cent of respondents are “less likely” to vote for Scheer due to the premier’s policies.
Among federal Tory voters 21 per cent said Ford makes them think twice about voting for Scheer.
“Ford is a huge anchor on Scheer,” pollster John Corbett said last Thursday.
“He is a danger for the (Scheer) Tories,” added Corbett.
About one-third — 31 per cent — of respondents said Ford’s policies would have no effect on their ballot this fall while 15 per cent didn’t know.
Using Maru/Blue’s Maru Voice Canada online panel, Corbett Communications surveyed 1,555 Ontario voters on Tuesday and Wednesday. It is an opt-in sample, but for comparison purposes a randomly selected sample of this size would have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
As disclosed by the Star last weekend, the federal Conservatives are increasingly alarmed about the impact Ford might have on their electoral fortunes in Ontario.
“Doug Ford is the number one issue at the doors (for candidates) here,” said one senior Conservative official, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal campaign deliberations.
“Let’s just say there are really strong feelings,” the insider said.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow on Twitter: @robertbenzie