Reptilian behaviour in Ontario politics .. Liberals and New Democrats battle for soul of the leftSep 14th, 2006 | By Randall White | Category: Canadian Provinces
When the Vancouver Sun runs a news item on an Ontario provincial by-election in the old Toronto west end you can guess something is happening. On the surface, federal Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy’s old Ontario provincial seat in Parkdale-High Park was just up for grabs in a by-election, on Thursday, September 14, 2006.
Yet this somehow almost suddenly turned into “one of the province’s ugliest electoral battles in recent memory.” What is going on? At the bottom of it all you finally have to see the current struggle between the Liberals and the New Democrats for the soul of the cause of progress, in many different parts of Canada today. And it is not a very sensible sight.
An introductory footnote on the John Tory Team in Parkdale-High Park …
As evidence of just how much the September 14 Ontario provincial by-election in Parkdale-High Park is just a sordid slugfest between the old Clear Grits and the NDP, the Conservatives are running under an assumed name.
As suggested by a walk in the riding over the past few weeks at least, the party’s name appears nowhere on the lawn signs for former Toronto city councillor David Hutcheon, the Conservative candidate. He is identified only as a member of “The John Tory Team.”
John Tory is the aptly named current leader of the Ontario provincial Conservatives. You might almost say, with a bow to the old British North American brewers, that Mr. Tory is what T.S. Eliot had in mind, when he told George Orwell that what Animal Farm needed was not a democratic struggle to throw the ruling pigs out, but just “more public-spirited pigs.”
At his best, Mr. Tory is (quite unlike Mr. Harper federally) the kind of old Toronto patrician progressive conservative that even many local New Democrats secretly like. But one thing that seems almost certain about the September 14 by-election is that neither he nor his party count at all. Barring some utterly stunning surprise, Mr. Hutcheon – no matter what his designated partisan affiliation may be – stands no chance of winning the seat.
The complex career of Rev. Cheri DiNovo, NDP …
In the last Ontario provincial election in 2003 Gerard Kennedy won Parkdale-High Park for the Liberals “by a whopping 42 percentage points – the sixth widest margin in the province.” (And he then went on to become minister of education in Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government.)
But for this 2006 by-election the Liberals are running (as summarized by the Toronto Star‘s veteran Queen’s Park columnist Ian Urquhart) “Sylvia Watson, a humourless one-term city councillor and former city bureaucrat. Suffice it to say that she ain’t no Gerard Kennedy.” And the New Democrats have a competitive history in the riding.
(Or as Mr. Urquhart explains here: “It is … a riding that has gone to the NDP before – in 1990 provincially and as recently as this year federally, with the election of Peggy Nash. And it is a by-election, which New Democrats are very good at winning. By-elections allow them to concentrate their formidable organizing resources and to invite the electorate to lodge a cost-free protest vote.”)
Over the last number of days, as various reports of NDP strength have apparently been picked up by those with their ears closest to the ground, the Liberals (and/or some people of Ontario friendly to their cause) have launched what can only be called a quite aggressive campaign of ad hominem attacks on the New Democrat candidate, Cheri DiNovo.
Ms. DiNovo is a (now 56-year-old) former street person who apparently once used LSD, but then subsequently saw the light and became a United Church minister and community worker. You might guess that a person of this sort would have a colourful background, and you would be right. And some of this background apparently survives in some of the Rev. DiNovo’s sermons to her no doubt somewhat theologically advanced congregation.
The Liberals say they are just making the true nature of the Rev. DiNovo’s “values” clear to the electorate. For a more complete account see “By-Election One Day Away – Watson urges all candidates to own up to their record, their judgement” on the CNW Group site.
(Meanwhile, here are two quick examples. Judge for yourself: “Should we then ordain pedophiles and axe murderers? Anyone and everyone who seeks baptism, inclusion in the church, should receive it if the request comes from God.” And – from a 2005 sermon which included references to media coverage of the notorious Ontario murderess Karla Homolka: “Every day we are subject to what I consider a kind of sadistic pornography. Now I know it sells papers but every day we pick up the Star or the National Post or the Globe and we see the picture of Karla Homolka on the front cover . . . it allows us to create a scapegoat, remember Jesus was a scapegoat, and just pour all our hatred and frustration on this one woman. How sick is that?”)
Even the (often Liberally inclined) Toronto Star has complained about a “smear campaign.” And Ms. DiNovo’s NDP colleague Rosario Marchese (MPP for the riding of Trinity-Spadina to the east) has called the Liberal ad hominem attacks “reptilian, reprehensible behaviour from a government that is desperate” and doesn’t “quite know what to do.”
Meanwhile, back in Ottawa Stephen Harper must be smiling … ?
One thing you have to wonder about is why are Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals quite so concerned to make sure they retain Gerard Kennedy’s old seat in Parkdale-High Park? Even if they do lose, e.g., it won’t at all affect their current governing majority in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. (As NDP canvassers are also apparently making clear to voters as they go from door to door.)
Of course, on the kinds of Machiavellian calculations that seem so influential in democratic politics throughout the free world nowadays, Ontario’s first fixed-date provincial election will take place in October 2007. Already, it is said, the campaign is under way.
Losing the September 2006 Parkdale-High Park by-election is not a good way for the McGuinty Liberals to kick things off. And if John Tory’s intermittently pinkish regional Conservatives have no chance in this current local contest, they still do seem in a good enough race with the old grey Ontario Grits for the province-wide popular vote in 2007. If you don’t punch the other guy first, or the other guy’s sort-of friend, he’ll punch you last, etc. (Or something like that.)
Still. It’s not just the reptilian ad hominem attacks on Ms. DiNovo’s “values.” (You can take the kid out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the kid – even or perhaps especially if she subsequently becomes a United Church minister in downtown urban Canada. What’s really surprising about that?)
As many as 11 McGuinty cabinet ministers have been through Parkdale-High Park recently, beating the bushes for the humourless one-term city councillor and former city bureaucrat Sylvia Watson. Premier McGuinty himself has been working the riding quite ardently. (And: “Pestered by the press on the smearing of DiNovo,” he just replied, “Look, it’s a tough by-election for us.”)
And then you come to the part of the story that starts to make some deeper sense. On September 12 even current federal Liberal leadership candidates Gerard “Kennedy himself and former New Democratic premier Bob Rae (who lives in the riding) took time out from fighting each other … to campaign for” Ms. Watson in the Ontario provincial by-election in Parkdale-High Park.
Remember, that is to say: Bob Rae, the only NDP premier in all of modern Ontario political history (unless you count the long forgotten 19191923 Farmer-Labour government of E.C. Drury), is now running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.
And then remember too: a former NDP premier of beautiful British California on Canada’s Pacific Coast, Mr. Ujjal Dosanjh, is already nowadays a Liberal Member of Parliament in Ottawa – and a supporter of Bob Rae in the federal Liberal leadership race. And then there is the recent move from NDP to the Liberals, so to speak, by Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Auto Workers.
And then there is one of two or three clear messages from the federal NDP convention in Quebec City this past weekend. Viz., Jack Layton’s New Democratic Party of Canada actually does seem to believe that it is quite seriously and fearlessly in the business of becoming at least the next minority Government of Canada, as early as the next federal election.
If Liberals – of varying hues and in all parts of the country – were more confident about their own long-term future at all levels in Canadian politics, they might laugh all this off with a haughty wave of noblesse oblige. But apparently they are not and they aren’t. The New Democrats conceivably could replace the Liberals as the majority party of the left in Canada, at some point soon enough. Something of this sort did happen in the history of the old model parliamentary democracy across the sea.
This model is not as influential nowadays in Canada as it used to be. But sometimes lately it has seemed that both federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper and federal New Democrat leader Jack Layton would like to see some form of at least modest revival of the good old days when, in the immortal words of Pauline Johnson: “The Dutch may have their Holland / The Spaniard have his Spain / The Yankee to the south of us / Must south of us remain / For not a man may lift a hand against the men who brag / That they were born in Canada beneath the British flag.”
And then again, it probably is still true that the Liberals are clearly the majority party of the left – and the NDP a mere third party – in most parts of Canada east of the Lake of the Woods. But in Western Canada that is not really true at all, and has not been for years. And if the New Democrats could somehow gain a decisive upper hand on the Liberals in Ontario, the current western trend could rapidly spread much further east, especially now that the West is in …
In any case, it must all be bringing a bit of a smile to Prime Minister Harper’s stiff upper lip in Ottawa. So long as the Liberals and the New Democrats really are slugging it out in some mindlessly neo-Machiavellian duel to the death, Stephen Harper probably will win at least another minority government in the next federal election. (And look what he’s already done with that.) And it just may even be that whether or not he can go further and win a majority of seats in the federal Parliament finally will become the big question in the next election too.
Can the Ontario Liberal juggernaut do it … stay tuned for final results … ?
For the moment, the big practical neo-Machiavellian question in the Ontario provincial riding of Parkdale-High Park is just whether the Liberals’ reptilian ad hominem attacks on the too flakily progressive values of the Rev. Cheri DiNovo will be enough to win the riding for Sylvia Watson.
(And note that, correctly enough, the by-election here is pitting one female candidate for the Liberals against another female candidate for the New Democrats. So no one can choose one side or the other for reasons of this sort. The Conservatives do have a male candidate. But as noted above, barring some altogether unforseen disaster, they are out of it from the start.)
So what is going to happen? Stay tuned.
The counterweights editors have promised that they will post the final results right here, late tonight or early tomorrow morning. And then everyone who is interested can start to make their bigger judgments, about where we will all go from there …
AND HERE THEY ARE … According to the Globe and Mail early this morning, Friday, September 15: “Partial results from Elections Ontario last night, with 214 of 220 polls reporting, gave the NDP 41 per cent of the vote against 33 per cent for the Liberals, 17 per cent for the Tories and 6 per cent for the Green Party.”
According to the Toronto Star, somewhat later: “With 218 of the 220 polls reporting, DiNovo was more than 2,000 votes ahead of Watson.” What does this mean for the future in Ontario politics? Our initial assessment is conceivably not too much. (It was only a by-election, which as Ian Urquhart has noted the NDP is especially good at.) What does it mean for the future of the Liberals and the New Democrats in Canada at large? At this moment who knows? What does seem clear is that the Liberal smear campaign at the tail end didn’t work. Which is arguably enough good for the health of something, down the road. (And there is a final post-mortem summary of the reptilian events in the Friday afternoon Globe and Mail.)
Randall White is the author of a number of books on Ontario and Canadian history and politics, including Ontario Since 1985 and Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada.