How Ontario Place is being used to benefit various Toronto mayoral campaigns

People who only pay attention to politics during elections — which, for the record, is most people that have a healthy set of priorities — often have an understandably misguided impression of how elections are won.

They hear talk in the news about a ballot question and think that whichever campaign has the best answer to that question, will be the one that wins.

What they are often missing is that the contest between campaigns is to make the ballot question the only one that their candidate can win on.

Put another way, if your hockey team is built on speed and skill, trying to out muscle a bruising defense-focused team is a losing strategy. Success comes from making your opponent play your game.

Toronto’s election has raised issues like affordability, transit, and public safety, but none have grabbed the headlines as much as the fate of a 50-plus year-old amusement park that has been officially closed for more than 10 years.

Ontario Place has been a dominant issue on the campaign and every candidate sees a different angle they can win on. In a recent interview with CBC, I called it a “Swiss Army knife” issue, because campaigns are able to use Ontario Place for whatever angle they need to spotlight their issues.

Housing was tied to Ontario Place, when one campaign proposed moving the Science Centre to Ontario Place, opening up land to build housing. When Premier Doug Ford seized on this himself, it showed campaigns that Ontario Place can generate more coverage through the Queen’s Park press gallery in addition to the reporters covering City Hall.

Relations with the Ontario government will always be an issue during Toronto elections — much of Mayor John Tory’s appeal was related to his ability to work with other orders of government. Some campaigns see Ontario Place as an opportunity to distinguish themselves on provincial relations, by promising to be a mayor who will stand up for Toronto by standing opposed to the province.

That could be a tough sell when municipalities are creatures of the province and this particular premier has had no issue using that leash to bring Toronto to heel. Still, the more Ford makes Toronto his personal urban planning playground, the more voters who might be open to a ballot question that asks who is the candidate to kick the premier out of the sandbox.

Along with masks, vaccines, and toilet paper, public green spaces were something that the public found in short supply during the worst days of the pandemic. A campaign that wants to champion more access to more green spaces in Toronto has Ontario Place ready to serve as the megaphone for their message.

Even candidates who don’t see a winning issue for their campaign with Ontario Place, can point out that talking about the park’s future means we aren’t talking about public safety or the city’s finances.

The flexibility of framing that Ontario Place offers campaigns, is supported by the other characteristic that is likely to keep it front and centre as an issue — familiarity. Whatever angle a campaign wants to apply to Ontario Place to support their own narratives, it will be helped by the fact that the site resonates with so many people.

Voters have memories of concerts at the Forum, taking their kids to Children’s Village, or taking in lake views from the West Island. Ontario Place is tangible for people in a way that many of the more complex issues of municipal governance will never be.

Smart campaigns don’t try to write the better answer, they try to become the only answer to their own question.

It’s how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the obvious choice for change in 2015, and how Ford won in 2018 by shining a spotlight on the fiscal record of the previous government.

While the park’s future is in flux, Ontario Place is not going anywhere as a campaign issue in Toronto’s election. It raises so many different questions that every campaign believes there is one where their candidate will have the answer voters want to hear.

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