As cost of living soars, affordability becomes top election issue in Ontario

In all publicly available Ontario election polls, voters’ top concern is the rising cost of living.

Affordability has exploded beyond the major perennial issues of health – even after two years of a global pandemic – and employment, with the unemployment rate at record highs.

While Ontario party leaders often talk during the election campaign about making life more affordable, it’s surprising they don’t push the issue even more, given how much it resonates with voters.

“Smart politicians won’t just talk about [the cost of living] as a problem, they will understand that this is a test of character,” said Greg Lyle, a seasoned pollster and president of Innovative Research Group.

“People want to hear them talk about the issue in a way that indicates these politicians understand the problem that voters are facing,” Lyle said in an interview with CBC News.

Recent poll by Lyle’s companyas well as by Earnscliffe Strategies, Ipsos and Abacus data clearly shows the cost of living concerns that matter most to Ontario voters right now.

Trips to the supermarket are hitting Ontarians with sticker shock, making the rising cost of living the top provincial election issue, according to several recent polls. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“It’s on so many people’s minds,” Lyle said. “If you [as a politician] miss this issue, then the average voter will feel like you’re not listening to them.”

What is unclear in the polls is which party voters think can best deal with it.

Lyle’s poll suggests Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party has an edge on the issue over the Ontario Liberals and the NDP. He believes this is as much or more a legacy of the parties’ long-term reputation among voters than a reaction to particular measures the parties had proposed on affordability before his late April ballot.

“Part of the Liberals’ problem is that they are being blamed for high electricity prices, as Ontarians perceive it, and so they have to beat this story to move forward on the issue,” Lyle said.

Yet when asked which party would do a better job of affordability, the most common response was none of the parties, suggesting that the Liberals and NDP have some opportunity to gain ground on the Conservatives. .

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford speaks at a rally to mark the start of the election campaign in Etobicoke last week. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Similarly, a poll by Earnscliffe Strategies suggests that PCs only have a slight lead among voters who named the cost of living as their top concern.

“There’s not one side that really owns this issue,” said Doug Anderson, co-head of national opinion research for Earnscliffe.

Since affordability has only recently emerged as the dominant issue, Anderson calls public opinion on the subject “volatile.” So he believes there is significant growth potential for a party that offers voters an attractive set of ways to make life more affordable.

“I think we will see the parties make decisions to highlight [affordability] policies more,” Anderson said.

So far, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca’s main attempt to achieve this has been his attention-grabbing money pledge: All transit fares in Ontario would be $1 until 2024. He passed the rest of last week unveiling education announcements.

An Esso station displays a price of nearly $2 per liter of gasoline, in Toronto, May 5, 2022. Gasoline prices are expected to continue to rise across Ontario. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath tried to draw attention to her platform’s ideas on how to make life more affordable.

On Thursday, she talked about a dental plan that could save the average household more than $1,200 a year. She then spent Friday focusing on her housing plan, including an offer of government down payment assistance. And on Saturday, it was all about lowering people’s electricity and heating bills by funding home energy retrofits.

The PCs aim for what appears to be an avant-garde style campaign, with Ford’s daily events merely repeating things he has previously announced.

Ford’s key affordability measures apply to drivers: waiving annual vehicle registration fees, waiving tolls on provincial highways in the Greater Toronto Area, and a promised reduction of 5.7 cents per liter over six months of Ontario’s gas tax.

All parties must fight the election on affordability, said Ginny Roth, a former Ontario PC strategist who now works in government relations for Crestview Strategy.

“It’s incredibly crucial, and they have to do it in a way that differentiates themselves,” Roth said in an interview.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath walks with candidate Justin Kong after announcing a dental plan during a campaign stop in Scarborough last week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

She understands why the NDP is promising dental care and pharmacare, but wonders if it’s communicating clearly to voters about how it will make their lives more affordable.

“I don’t think they’re succeeding in the same way that the Del Duca liberals were successful on the courier side,” Roth said.

She thinks Del Duca’s promise of $1 public transit tickets succeeded by being “politically appetizing.”

Affordability overtook COVID-19 as a major issue only late last year after the worst of the pandemic appeared to be behind Ontario. It’s almost as if by March 2020 people had accepted that the pandemic had to be the priority, but then their pent up worries about the cost of living erupted.

To mix together home prices skyrocket 44% in just two yearsplus a spike in inflation with Ontarians facing record gas prices and skyrocketing grocery bills daily, and you have voters demanding to know what the parties will do to make life easier for their wallets .

It’s rare to see one issue dominate Ontario politics lately, Lyle said.

“It’s new compared to, say, the last decade of election campaigns in Ontario,” he said. “In the last two elections, we had overloaded agendas where it was very difficult to tackle a subject that would interest everyone.

Now, this “everyone’s issue” is staring Ontario’s political parties in the eye. It will be fascinating to see how they handle it during the rest of the campaign.