It’s the four-letter F-word that Andrew Scheer dares not speak.
Ford — as in Premier Doug Ford.
While the premier’s Progressive Conservatives won 76 of Ontario’s 124 provincial ridings in last year’s election, Scheer’s federal Conservatives fear he could hurt them where they need to win most.
Yes, Ford did his national counterparts a favour by postponing this past Monday’s scheduled return of the legislature until Oct. 28 — a week after the election.
But it may be difficult for the limelight-loving premier of Canada’s most populous and electorally important province to remain in the shadows for the next six weeks.
Indeed, just last Friday, Ford, whose government is spending $30 million fighting federal carbon pricing measures, fired a salvo at Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in an email fundraising appeal for his provincial party.
“It makes me so angry that we have to deal with the federal carbon tax. Because it isn’t just gas. It’s everything. Groceries move by truck. Homes are heated with natural gas,” he wrote.
“Honestly … it just makes me sick. Politicians who want to make your life more expensive don’t deserve to get elected. End of story.”
In that vein, Ford’s mandatory stickers attacking the federal carbon plan began appearing on gas pumps two weeks ago.
However, the Tory-blue decals — printed by Astley Gilbert at a cost to the treasury of $4,954 — are being challenged by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which argues that compelled speech violates the Constitution’s protection of free speech.
Vandalized and peeled off so quickly that supplies have run short, they may end up as a historic curio because the premier has suggested he might abandon the fight against Ottawa’s carbon pricing if the Trudeau Liberals are re-elected.
“We’ll be consulting with cabinet and we’ll move forward from there, but I do respect democracy,” he said two weeks ago.
It’s that sort of freewheeling style that alarms the button-down team around Scheer.
As of now, there are no plans for the two Tory leaders to campaign together during the writ period.
Privately, Conservative candidates confide that Ford’s unpopularity is evident at the doorsteps where they are forced to patiently explain they are running for another party at a different level of government.
“People can be brutal,” said one federal Tory, speaking confidentially so as not to offend the provincial party.
“Some blame us for him,” the Conservative said, noting that cuts stemming from the provincial party’s April budget and ongoing controversy over autism funding continue to haunt.
The threat of a major midcampaign work stoppage — such as a strike as early as Sept. 23 by 55,000 school custodians, education assistants, and clerical staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees — terrifies Conservatives.
They worry that the Trudeau Liberals, who already demonize Scheer and Ford as a dastardly duo hell-bent on cutting public services, would use the job action against the federal Tories.
Get The Lead newsletter
Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.
Trudeau’s first campaign ad even mocked Ford’s long-time populist slogan.
“The Conservatives like to say they’re ‘for the people,’ but then they cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for everybody else,” the Liberal leader says in the 30-second spot.
Scheer, who last fall courted Ford for his support and was the keynote speaker at the provincial PC convention, now goes to great pains to not mention the premier by name.
In an interview with the Star on June 10 when he emphasized he is his “own person,” the Tory chief did not even utter the word “Ford” despite being peppered with questions about him.
Similarly, on Aug. 1 during a news conference at Mount Sinai Hospital, about 550 metres from the premier’s office, Scheer was asked three times about the premier and deftly avoid the F-word.
But a new Campaign Research poll released Monday suggested Ford may be slightly less of a political liability than he was.
The monthly tracking survey found the premier has a 25 per cent approval rating at a 63 per cent disapproval rating for an overall -38 per cent.
Dismal as that sounds, it’s an improvement over his 18 per cent approval and 71 per cent disapproval — a -53 per cent tally — in June.
Using Maru/Blue’s Maru Voice Canada online panel, Campaign Research polled 957 Ontario voters Sept. 3-5. 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 3.17 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The firm also found 23 per cent of respondents who voted for Ford’s party in the June 2018 Ontario election intend to cast ballots for Scheer’s Tories on Oct. 21.
At the same time, 8 per cent of people who did not vote for the Ontario Tories will cast ballots for Scheer and 6 per cent of Ford voters will not back the federal Tories.
Almost half — 46 per cent — said they did not vote for Ford and will not vote for Scheer, with 17 per cent unsure.