New age of McGuinty’s Ontario puts down roots

Oct 11th, 2007 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

The one seriously distressing result of Canada’s most populous province’s first fixed-date election on October 10, 2007 was that less than 53% of the eligible electorate finally cast ballots – a gloomy new low in Ontario politics since the start of the Canadian confederation in 1867. Beyond this, the McGuinty Liberals, as widely predicted, did win a second consecutive majority government. Conservative leader John Tory lost his own seat in Don Valley West. Howard Hampton’s New Democrats did better than last time out, in 2003. And the rising new Green Party won a striking enough 8% of the province-wide popular vote. In the accompanying referendum on electoral reform, the proposal for a new “Mixed Member Proportional” voting system – that would have brought a party’s seats in the legislature more into line with its province-wide popular vote – was resoundingly defeated by the province-wide electorate. Yet political historians will tell you that this was nonetheless a watershed provincial election. Mr. McGuinty’s victory marks the first time the Ontario Liberal Party has won back-to-back majority governments since 1937. New winds are blowing in the old central Canada back east. (And they may mark some parallel new federal winds in Ottawa too?)

Premier McGuinty says “We are Ontario” …

Judged strictly by the numbers, the magnitude of Premier McGuinty’s victory certainly has its limitations. As of 1 AM, Thursday, October 11, the Liberals have won or are leading in 71 seats in the 107-seat Legislative Assembly, based on a mere 42% of the province-wide popular vote. John Tory’s Conservatives have 26 seats with 32% of the vote, and Howard Hampton’s New Democrats 10 seats with 17% of the vote. The Green Party has no seats with 8% and others have no seats with 1%.

Similarly, the legendary people – as various polling data show, some will rightly enough urge – voted for the Liberal “brand” much more than Mr. McGuinty himself. But his achievement has been to start to redefine the brand in a way that has fresh relevance for Ontario today. (A task that still eludes Stephane Dion’s federal Liberal Party in Ottawa, e.g., for Canada at large.)

Premier McGuinty’s speech to his local Ottawa district supporters at the Chateau Laurier hotel also hinted broadly at why, by all the ordinary rules of the game, he has wound up as the undisputed big winner on October 10.

The repeated theme of the speech was “We are Ontario.” And it did suggest how Dalton McGuinty is the political leader in the province today with the deepest feeling for the past, present, and future of the regional geography and modern culture north of the Great Lakes, and all the diverse people who reside in it today. In a suitably vague way he probably also has the sharpest vision of just how to go about confronting the undoubted challenges for Ontario that lie ahead. At some point someone should publish the text of the speech in full, as a working guide to Ontario over the next four years. Meanwhile, a Globe and Mail report notes this brief (and alas not entirely revealing) excerpt: “We demand progress. We embrace positive ideas. We deplore negativity … We embrace every culture and respect everything, but we want to work, and build and dream together.”

John Tory sounds like he still wants to stay on as PC leader …

Some are already arguing that John Tory’s inability to defeat Liberal education minister Kathleen Wynne in Don Valley West – and his resulting lack of a seat in the new provincial parliament at Queen’s Park – means that he will have to resign as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader. And they point as well to Mr. Tory’s great miscalculation on the public funding for religious schools issue – which, many argue, is what finally lost the election so badly for him.

Yet in his also quite impressive speech to his riding supporters in defeat, he seemed to be saying that he himself wants to stay on and build on what he has achieved so far. He arguably actually has made a real and healthy contribution to current Ontario public debate with his so-called faith-based schools proposal. The issue is almost certainly not dead yet. (It remains unfair to fund the Catholic separate schools, but not those of other religious groups, of course.) He is a distinguished public figure, who still has a contribution to make to public life. In recent history both Mike Harris and Dalton McGuinty lost elections rather badly, before going on to win big in the end. (Neither of them lost their seat in the legislature in the process of course. But that need not be an insurmountable problem.)

Howard Hampton’s New Democrats still alive and kicking … in some districts at least …

Along with the Liberals, in some degree no doubt, the NDP and the Greens seem to have benefitted from whatever truth there is to the argument that John Tory shot his Conservatives in the foot, with his public funding for faith-based schools proposal.

The New Democrats have benefitted too from the current economic struggles of the forestry sector in the north, and the manufacturing and especially automobile sectors in the south. They improved their share of the popular vote over 2003. They still don’t have many seats, but there are now a few fresh faces. They are still a force of some sort to contend with in Ontario politics. Mr. Hampton has also made clear that he’d like to stick around as leader for a while yet too. And he has probably earned the right to do just that … for a while longer at least.

The Green Party, MMP, and potential federal fallout …

As reported in the Globe and Mail, “Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound candidate, Shane Jolley, nipped at the heels of long-time Conservative incumbent Bill Murdoch all night, garnering as much as 37-per-cent support in the riding based on early returns and putting the Greens in a strong second place.” Although they did not win their first parliamentary seat in the riding in the end, leader Frank de Jong’s province-wide showing of 8% was impressive enough. (And it may have helped the Liberals convert their modest 42% of the popular vote into some two-thirds of the seats in the Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park. Subsequent analysis by various analysts will no doubt be looking into this matter.)

If “MMP” reform actually had won the day in the accompanying referendum, the Green Party’s 8% of the vote would certainly have brought them some seats. But just under 37% of the province-wide electorate backed MMP. As reported by the Globe and Mail here: “Ontario’s referendum on electoral reform was an unmitigated disaster’ plagued by voter and media apathy, a poor education campaign, and an impossible threshold for passage, proponents say … Early results show Ontarians have voted nearly two-to-one to keep the first-past-the-post election system, rejecting a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system recommended by a government-appointed citizens’ assembly earlier this year … The new system needed approval by a super majority’ of 60 per cent of voters and majority approval in at least 64 ridings.'”

What does it all mean for federal politics in Ottawa? The shortest answer is of course who really knows? But one guess is that the strong showings by the Liberals and NDP in Ontario provincial politics suggest a federal election that hinges on the Harper Conservatives’ significantly improving their position in Ontario probably does not make a great deal of sense.

On the other hand, if you take seriously the striking enough long-term historical trend for Ontario voters to vote provincially for the opposite party to the one they see as dominant federally – in a kind of ultimate political balancing act – the new political fact that provincial Liberals have now won two consecutive provincial elections, for the first time since 1937, could mean that the Ontario electorate has at least decided that the federal Conservatives probably are going to dominate in Ottawa, one way or another, for a while longer yet?

May 8 Report: HO HUM .. Ontario Liberals will likely win another majority in Canada’s most populous province?

TORONTO. CANADIAN THANKSGIVING. MONDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2007. Even if you happen to have been out of the province over the past three weeks, it does not take too long to catch up on the first fixed-date Ontario provincial election of October 10, 2007. Premier Dalton McGuinty may not have fared all that well in the televised party leaders’ debate. But if the latest polls are to be believed, he and his “Liberal Party Ontario” will win the election anyway – probably with a respectable majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park.

At the same time, those who hope that the accompanying referendum on the arcane subject of electoral reform through proportional representation will also prevail may be disappointed. Here the polls appear to show that the “MMP” reform will not get anything like the 60% approval required to trigger actual change. Yet who knows? The considerable confusion apparently still surrounding this issue might produce some surprising results. (And Premier McGuinty could win the last single-party majority government in the history of Canada’s most populous province, or something more or less like that. It is just Ontario after all.)

The polls on who will win … Conservative leader John Tory and New Democrat flag-bearer Howard Hampton are said to be sharpening “their attacks as vote nears.” But an October 6 report in the Toronto Star has urged that “Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals are cruising to another majority government next Wednesday thanks to Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory’s pledge to fund religious schools, according to a new poll.”

Seat projections prepared by G.P. Murray Research, based on a half dozen opinion polls from September 21 to October 1 give the McGuinty Liberals anywhere from 56 to 71 seats in the Legislative Assembly. Seats for 107 electoral districts are being contested on October 10. And a bare majority is 54 seats. The most recent poll in the G.P. Murray Research compilation gives the Liberals 71 seats, based on 43% of the popular vote, the Conservatives 31 seats from 32% of the vote, the NDP 5 seats from 14% and the Green Party 0 seats from 10%.

It is also true that the “Conservatives, who have been polling 500 Ontarians a night since Monday [October 1, when Mr. Tory somewhat adjusted his policy on the controversial faith-based schools’ funding issue], insist they have seen a bounce and their numbers suggest McGuinty is still in minority government territory.”

Yet a Canadian Press report today (October 8) notes that the”latest Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll shows the Liberals have maintained a healthy lead of 42 per cent among voters polled between Oct.4 and 7 … The Conservatives held second place at 31 per cent while the New Democrats are now polling at 17 per cent, making it the only party to register gains in the final stretch of the race … Despite an apparent rise in popularity in some southwestern Ontario ridings, support for the Greens dropped slightly to nine per cent … The results are virtually unchanged from a previous Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey conducted Sept. 27 through Oct. 1.”

What is behind all this? The highly seasoned Ontario political watcher Ian Urquhart of the Toronto Star has one tidy view: “”Overall, McGuinty’s government can be seen as a cup half full or half empty … On the half-full side, there have undeniably been improvements in the province’s schools and hospitals and other public services, and there has been some movement on the electricity and infrastructure files … On the half-empty side, there is more spin than substance in many government announcements, and a lot more work needs to be done … McGuinty himself acknowledges this last point and is asking for the opportunity to do it. It looks like the voters are about to give it to him.”

The Windsor Star has somewhat similarly reported on the views of an ordinary voter from the most southwesterly part of the province: “They haven’t exactly knocked her socks off, but the Liberals are a safer bet than the Conservatives or New Democrats for Windsor West voter Cheryl Garrod … It’s the lesser of the two evils,’ Garrod says as she explains her decision to vote Liberal on Wednesday. They haven’t done anything in the last two years to really upset me.'”

The one big campaign issue?

The studious and learned Thomas Walkom at the Toronto Star – like others who will be voting on October 10 – has complained that Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory’s controversial pledge to fund religious schools has drained most of all other life out of the campaign.

As Walkom, whose usual beat is “national affairs,” has put it: “In the end, it became an election campaign focused on just one issue: Do Ontarians want to see more public funding of religious schools? … Along the way, everything else fell by the wayside health care, taxes, the environment, the struggling manufacturing economy, poverty and the plight of elderly nursing home residents … Now, with just …days left … the opposition parties are desperately trying to change the channel. The man who first promised to fund so-called faith-based schools, Conservative Leader John Tory, has publicly recanted and is calling on voters to focus elsewhere … But in Ontario, where questions of religion and education are fraught with history and significance, it is not clear that he will succeed … All of which has left the governing Liberals well ahead in the polls and their leader, Premier Dalton McGuinty, grinning broadly.”

To say that John Tory has recanted is not quite right. What he has done is promise to put his proposal to publicly fund religiously sponsored schools beyond Ontario’s somewhat unique present Catholic separate system (which dates back to Confederation in 1867) to a free vote of the legislature. Since more than a few candidates in his own party do not exactly support his proposal – along with virtually all the Liberals and New Democrats – this means it would be unlikely to go through, even if Mr. Tory’s Conservatives were to win the election. Which now seems not very likely in any case, of course. (And to no small extent, some like Mr. Walkom will say, because Mr. Tory quite fatally misread the public mood on public funding of “so-called faith-based schools.”)

Mr. Walkom is far from alone in this view. As reported in the London Free Press [in Ontario not England of course, despite the Union Jack that still graces the official provincial flag]: “A SES Research-Sun Media poll shows concern over faith-based school funding and education has trumped leadership as driving factors influencing voters in the leadup to Wednesday’s Ontario election … Nik Nanos, SES Research president, said elections are traditionally about nothing and the leader,’ but this campaign seems to be about issues, in particular the Conservative proposal to bring private religious schools into the public fold. I think this is going to go down as the election about faith-based school funding. That’s what people are going to remember.'”

This report carries on as well: “Nanos said there have been campaigns around single issues before – Canada-U.S. free trade, for example – but he could not recall one where the issue popped up almost out of nowhere and hijacked the debate … It’s very unusual for part of a party platform to consume the whole campaign . . . it’s very unusual for voters to associate a politician with a single issue,’ he said … Average voters have used this faith-based issue to make a decision about John Tory’ … Liberals saw a vulnerability in Tory’s school policy and they just went for it,’ he said. Ontarians haven’t really seen the real John Tory.'”

It may finally prove a bit too early to jump altogether confidently in the direction of these conclusions. But this issue has connected with some notable changes and even somewhat unsettling vibrations in Ontario society today. And not everyone feels that the ultimate outcome of the connection has necessarily been progressive. According to Haroon Siddiqui in the Toronto Star it all means that “Ontario democracy fails faith-based test of maturity.” And it is certainly true that Mr. McGuinty’s apparently winning position in the current debate only makes serious sense if Ontario really does contemplate (and ultimately acts on) dismantling its current publicly funded Catholic separate school system. As Mr. Siddiqui aptly enough says: “it is strange to argue that funding 675,000 students in Ontario Catholic schools has not destroyed the public system but funding another 53,000 would … Implicit in that argument is the notion that Catholics, whom we didn’t trust at one time, are now acceptable but Jews, Hindus and Sikhs are not. Or that they all are but Muslims are not. Opposition to abortion, gay marriage and women priests from Catholics can be tolerated, but not from orthodox Jews, Muslims and others … This is not a sustainable proposition in a democracy.”

The referendum on electoral reform

The companion October 10 referendum on reforming Ontario’s current (and perhaps equally irrational or even “unsustainable”) electoral democracy does not seem to have gone quite as well as Mr. McGuinty’s broader (or narrower?) quest for the practical right to manage the government of the day at Queen’s Park (always in the ultimate interests, of course, of the people of Ontario).

The point here, you may remember, is why should Dalton’s McGuinty’s Liberals win a possibly even quite commanding majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly (as some projections do indeed suggest they will), even though, in terms of the province-wide popular vote, their victory falls considerably short of any kind of majority among actual voters casting democratic ballots? (And if there is any certainty in all the current numerical prophecies about the outcome on October 10, it is that no party is going to win a proper democratic majority of the popular vote.)

As it happens, this is a longstanding practical problem in the annals of parliamentary democratic government – especially in places with so-called “first past the post” electoral systems and more than two main political parties. The traditional solution (as practised in many parts of Europe and even Australasia, e.g.) is some form of so-called “proportional representation.” That is what is on offer in the October 10 Ontario referendum on “Mixed Member Proportional” (MMP) electoral reform. Many voters may still not know exactly what this means. But it has been well explained in many branches of the media now. (And Gordon Gibson from British Columbia, which, along with PEI, has already rejected proportional representation in a referendum, for the time being at any rate, has a strong piece on the current Ontario experience and how it compares with the debate in BC, in the eminent Toronto national newspaper known as the Globe and Mail.)

For MMP to actually be implemented in Ontario, in the referendum mandated by Mr. McGuinty’s original 2003 election majority in the Legislative Assembly, it must win the approval of at least 60% of the voters. Can it do that?

To start with, as a recent National Post report on the subject has noted, it is apparently still true enough that: “Two recent polls show about half the population is unaware a referendum is even taking place.” According to a Toronto Star report, an Angus Reid poll released October 5 found that “among decided voters who had an opinion on the electoral reform referendum, 58 per cent will vote to keep the current system, while 42 per cent support reform.”

A recent Toronto Star online poll showed some strikingly similar results. It posed the question: “On Wednesday, you will have the chance to vote on whether Ontario will switch to the mixed-member proportional system, which has elements of proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system we have now. How do you plan to vote, and why?” Only 41% of those responding online said they intended to vote For the mixed-member proportional system, with a full 58% against.

A few further odds and ends for real political junkies …

The face of things to come in Ontario government and politics on October 10 may already be clear enough, in broad brush strokes, that real political junkies will have to rest content with controversy over an assortment of smaller detailed questions, for various record books.

Will the Green Party, e.g., finally win its first actual seat in a Canadian legislature? As the Canadian Press reports: “Despite a healthy dose of skepticism, political observers are keeping a close eye on a southwestern Ontario riding where a veteran Conservative incumbent has a Green candidate nipping at his heels … Shane Jolley, a married father of three who sells organic and sweatshop-free clothing out of an alternative” bicycle shop in Owen Sound, Ont., won nearly 13 per cent of the popular vote when he ran for the Greens in the 2006 federal campaign … Recent polls suggest Jolley – running in only his second election, this time as a provincial candidate – has about 28 per cent support in the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, nine points behind frank-talking Conservative maverick’ Bill Murdoch … Should he win, Jolley would become the first-ever Green hopeful to win a seat in provincial or federal parliament.”

Another key seat to watch is of course Don Valley West in the present-day City of Toronto. There Conservative leader John Tory himself is locked in an apparently still uncertain battle with Liberal education minister Kathleen Wynne. And as Chip Martin has recently reported in the Toronto Sun: “It was enough to make a Conservative see red … Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory was canvassing through the leafy Toronto neighbourhood where he grew up yesterday when he saw trouble down the road … At his boyhood home on Snowdon Ave. he spotted an election sign for Kathleen Wynne, his Liberal rival in Don Valley West … That’s outrageous,’ Tory joked to a media entourage and canvassers, walking briskly up to the door and introducing himself to startled homeowners Ian and Ann Welsh … He told the couple about his memories of the two-storey brick home and asked to look around, a request with which they readily complied … Tory didn’t talk politics, focusing instead on his memories of the home and the neighbourhood, before heading off to more fertile households in the riding, where he is locked in a tight battle with Wynne … .” Might the Conservative leader even prove unable to win his own seat on October 10? Are things that bad for John Tory?

CTV News has drawn up a list of eight other Greater Toronto Area electoral districts that may be of some special interest, for one reason or another: Davenport, Mississauga-Erindale, Mississauga South, Oshawa, Parkdale-High Park, Thornhill, Toronto Danforth, and Willowdale. CTV News has also drawn attention to an additional half-dozen electoral districts, beyond the GTA (and, some will say, above it too), where one or another event of at least somewhat unusual or special interest may unfold on October 10: Hamilton Mountain, Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, London-Fanshawe, Nipissing, Peterborough, and Prince Edward-Hastings.

Murray Campbell in the Globe and Mail has made the apt enough point as well that whoever wins on October 10 may eventually come to wish he’d finally lost. And there are various good reasons to believe that governing Ontario over the coming four years may finally prove more difficult and challenging than it used to be. (Or even than has already been the case, ever since the mid 1970s energy-crisis recession.)

Yet it is also wrong to under-estimate the always shrewd and cunning enough Ontario voter, who is still keeping the regional democracy a little more alive and well than is sometimes thought. If the next four years are going to be unusually challenging, it arguably enough does seem that Dalton McGuinty is probably the current provincial party leader who is at least most enthusiastic about trying to rise to the challenges. That may just be the best qualification for actually dealing with whatever finally does lie ahead. And this may be the conclusion the people of Ontario are increasingly drawn towards, as they finally take a few moments to more seriously contemplate the decisions they must soon make, in order to fulfill the obligations of their democratic citizenship. We will know much more exactly by the dying hours of October 10.

Randall White is the author of a number of books on Canadian politics and history, including Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History, and Ontario Since 1985. In a much earlier incarnation he also worked for more than a decade in the Ontario public service.

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