Ottawa West-Nepean on March 4 could finally tell whether Dalton McGuinty is in real trouble?

Feb 9th, 2010 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

[UPDATED MARCH 5]. Late last year I wrote that “the Angus Reid approval and disapproval ratings for late November 2009 have at last convinced me that the McGuinty Liberal regime in Ontario today could be in more longer-term trouble than I have thought so far.” And I noted that the Toronto Centre by-election, February 4, 2010, would be “an early test.”

So where do things stand now?

1. Toronto Centre post-mortem

Glen Murray,  back in 2004 when he was Mayor of Winnipeg, shares a joke with  Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. As of February 4, 2010, Mr. Murray is Liberal MPP for Toronto Centre at Queen’s Park in Ontario. And Premier Dalton McGuinty is pleased. AARON HARRIS/CP FILE PHOTO.

Glen Murray, back in 2004 when he was Mayor of Winnipeg, shares a joke with Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. As of February 4, 2010, Mr. Murray is Liberal MPP for Toronto Centre at Queen’s Park in Ontario. And Premier Dalton McGuinty is pleased. AARON HARRIS/CP FILE PHOTO.

The McGuinty Liberals have passed at least their early test in Toronto Centre, with something close to flying colours.

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray won the by-election with 47.0% of the vote — compared with 47.85% for his predecessor (and now aspiring Toronto mayor) George Smitherman, in the October 10, 2007 general election.

The clearest losers on February 4 were the Conservatives’ Pamela Taylor, with a mere 15.4% in the 2010 by-election compared with 20.20% in the 2007 general election, and the Green Party with 9.81% in 2007 but only 3.1% in 2010.

The New Democrats, championed by street nurse Cathy Crowe this time, improved their performance dramatically — 33.1% in 2010 compared with 18.82% in 2007. But they still fell quite a way short of actually winning.

2. The next tests on March 4: not much to look for in old Tory bastion of Leeds-Grenville?

King Street, Brockville, in Bob Runciman’s and Jimmy Auld’s old Ontario Tory riding of Leeds-Grenville. Winter, 2009.  (Thanks to Glenn and Judy’s Excellent Canadian Adventures).

King Street, Brockville, in Bob Runciman’s and Jimmy Auld’s old Ontario Tory riding of Leeds-Grenville. Winter, 2009. (Thanks to Glenn and Judy’s Excellent Canadian Adventures).

You can of course say that a mid-term contest in Toronto Centre is not a telling reflection of just where the McGuinty Liberals currently stand in the province writ large.

(There was just one organization in all of Ontario promoting atheism in the late 19th century, the man who “wore the white flower of a blameless life,” Premier Oliver Mowat, noted: “and that is in Toronto.” Times have changed, but the principle of uniqueness seems similar.)

The next tests here will be two eastern Ontario by-elections on March 4, 2010 — in Leeds-Grenville and Ottawa West-Nepean.

Wilfrid Laurier political science professor David Docherty has wisely observed that Leeds-Grenville will not likely be much of a measure of anything either. It has been held since 1981 by the archetypal old Ontario Tory Bob Runciman, who has now been promoted to the unreformed Senate of Canada, by the unreformed federal minority Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Moreover, though name and boundary adjustments complicate the picture slightly, the riding of Leeds (the name of the seat Mr. Runciman first won in 1981: it did not become Leeds-Grenville until the election of 1987) had been held by the archetypal old Ontario Tory James Auld since 1954. Indeed, since its creation in time for the election of 1886 Leeds was only once won by a non-Tory, in Mitch Hepburn’s Grit populist uprising of 1934!

So, it might reasonably be said: if Mr. Runciman’s carefully meditated successor as local old blue-machine candidate, Steve Clark, former chief administrative officer for the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands, cannot hold Leeds-Grenville for the Ontario Tories this coming March 4, it will be Tim Hudak’s Conservatives who are really in trouble.

3. But keep your eye on Ottawa West-Nepean?

Bob Chiarelli (r) during his servcie as Mayor of Ottawa, with Renée Bates of the  Aristocrat Hotel (l) and Julian Armour of the  Ottawa Chamber Music Festival (c). The question now is can Bob Chiarelli hold Ottawa West-Nepean for Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals on March 4, 2010?  ©Photo by  Lois Siegel.

Bob Chiarelli (r) during his servcie as Mayor of Ottawa, with Renée Bates of the Aristocrat Hotel (l) and Julian Armour of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival (c). The question now is can Bob Chiarelli hold Ottawa West-Nepean for Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals on March 4, 2010? ©Photo by Lois Siegel.

Professor Docherty and other close followers of the Ontario scene agree that the March 4 by-election in Ottawa West-Nepean does have some serious “potential to be a barometer of how the government’s doing.”

The seat here was vacated by Jim Watson’s decision to step down as minister of municipal affairs and housing, so he can run for mayor of Ottawa. (Judging from both this and the Smitherman case in Toronto, being mayor of a big Ontario city is more alluring than sitting in Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario cabinet. Although see also the case of former Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli below.)

Under its current exact name and boundaries Ottawa West-Nepean only dates back to the 1999 provincial election. Jim Watson has held it for the Liberals since 2003. But Garry Guzzo won for the Mike Harris Conservatives in 1999 — partly as a result, some would stress, of internal Liberal squabbling.

Before this Bob Chiarelli had won the predecessor riding of Ottawa West for the Ontario Liberals in the 1987, 1990, and 1995 elections. But Ottawa West had “previously been regarded as a safe Progressive Conservative seat.” (And a quick look at the historic returns confirms strong Tory proclivities, back to the earliest incarnation of an Ottawa West in 1908.)

From 1997 to 2006 Bob Chiarelli “served his community at the municipal level —  first as Regional Chair of Ottawa-Carleton, and then [for] two terms as the first mayor of the amalgamated City of Ottawa.” He has now returned to Ontario provincial politics as Liberal candidate in the March 4, 2010 by-election in Ottawa West-Nepean.

Mr. Chiarelli will apparently face a worthy Conservative opponent in longtime community activist Beth Graham, who has “resigned her job as a political staffer for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.” Pam FitzGerald, a local school board trustee, will stand for the NDP. Mark MacKenzie is the Green Party candidate.

4. Is Dalton McGuinty a reincarnation of Oliver Mowat … or not?

Statue of Oliver Mowat at Queen’s Park in Toronto today. Will there also be a statue of Dalton McGuinty some day — or has Canada’s most populous province finally outgrown such things? Photo by Nick Moreau.

Statue of Oliver Mowat at Queen’s Park in Toronto today. Will there also be a statue of Dalton McGuinty some day — or has Canada’s most populous province finally outgrown such things? Photo by Nick Moreau.

If Bob Chiarelli finally manages to hold Ottawa West-Nepean for the Liberals on March 4, then Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star may be right: Dalton McGuinty (another man who still “wears the white flower of a blameless life,”107 years after the death of Oliver Mowat?) is likely enough to win a third Ontario general election in October 2011 — even though lately “some polls have shown Hudak’s PCs neck and neck with the Liberals and one suggested McGuinty is now the second least popular premier in Canada.”

(And note that the historic Ontario Liberal guru Oliver Mowat was never all that popular either, but nonetheless remained premier of Ontario for 24 successive years, from 1872 to 1896 — a Canadian record bested so far only by Preston Manning’s father in Alberta.)

On the other hand, if Ms. Graham finally manages to take the seat for the Hudak Conservatives more than a few observers will be saying ah yes indeed: the McGuinty Liberals really are in more longer-term trouble than I have thought so far. And they may be right.

So if you do count yourself  among the small but wiry band truly interested in the government and politics of Canada’s most populous province, stay tuned.

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.

For an update on the March 4, 2010 by-elections see Dr. White’s “Eastern Ontario provincial by-elections .. probably not too big a deal?

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