Is salvation for Ontario Liberals somewhere out there in Alice Munro’s rural Ontario?

Dec 3rd, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

Ontario Liberal Leadership Candidate Kathleen Wynne also announced on Saturday, December 1 that provincial Health Minister Deb Matthews has jumped on board as the co-chair of her campaign.

According to a Toronto Star report this past Friday: “Premier Dalton McGuinty’s resignation has given the Ontario Liberals a significant bounce … the governing Grits have vaulted to second place, ahead of the New Democrats, and closed the gap with the Progressive Conservatives, says the latest Forum Research survey.”

The report goes on: “The Conservatives are at 35 per cent, the Liberals at 29 per cent, the NDP at 27 per cent and the Greens at 8 per cent. That’s a seven-point gain for the Liberals from a Forum Research survey last month; the New Democrats have lost five points, the Tories two and the Greens one over the same period.”

Sandra Pupatello –not exactly rural Ontario, but at least she’s not from Toronto either!

The governing Grits, however, have still not managed to move the mind of the mass media that watches over Ontario politics. The seven candidates in the race to succeed Premier McGuinty held their first public debate in Ingersoll this past Saturday. And according to Anthony Furey at the Ottawa Sun : “Ontario Liberal debate avoids issues.”

Martin Regg Cohn at the Toronto Star was no more enthusiastic in “Weak economy constrains Liberals’ bid to renew …  Saturday’s encounter served as a dry run (watching paint dry, in fact) for a road show of debates that culminates with the convention next month in Toronto. The first Liberal debate was timid, tame and platitudinous.”

Is the salvation of today’s Ontario Liberals somewhere out there in what the Atlantic magazine calls “Alice Munro's rural Ontario (Robert Estall/Corbis).”

Meanwhile, on a more general plane of being, just before the Saturday Liberal leadership debate, Adam Radwanski at the Globe and Mail was proclaiming that “Ontario is witnessing the emergence of an invigorated Hudak …Little more than a year ago, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was written off as a glib opportunist with nothing significant to say. Now, in the run-up to a likely 2013 election, it’s the NDP’s Andrea Horwath who seems to be flirting with that designation, while Mr. Hudak all but saturates the controversial-ideas market.”

In fact, there did seem to be at least one consistent theme at the Saturday debate in Ingersoll. The Ontario Liberals have got the message – rightly or wrongly – that their big electoral weakness at the moment is a lack of support in rural Ontario. And so CTV News reported that “Ont. Liberal leadership candidates pledge more support for rural areas.”

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Kathleen Wynne – premier and minister of agriculture?

The Global TV website has similarly noted, in a Canadian Press posting, that “Kathleen Wynne surprised the [Ingersoll] audience by promising to appoint herself as agriculture minister … ‘This is such an important issue for us as a province, not just as a party, not just as a government, that I think the premier needs to take this on.’”

(Well, for a while anyway. As the Toronto Star noted, in an report headlined “Ontario Liberal leadership: Pupatello warns ‘love-in’ debate won’t prepare Grits for political battles ahead … One-time municipal affairs minister and Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne, 59, said the Liberals need to get back in tune with voters outside big cities – which she would do by serving as agriculture and rural affairs minister ‘for at least a year’ in addition to being premier.”)

Robert Nixon (l) and Bob Rae,in days gone by.

Reconnecting with rural Ontario will no doubt not be easy, for a Liberal leadership race with four candidates from ridings in the current City of Toronto proper, two from Mississauga, due west of Toronto, and one from Windsor – the Ontario auto city across the river from Detroit.

All this will nonetheless seem especially intriguing to those of us who started our careers as Ontario politics spectators back in the days when the provincial Liberals were still a kind of rural rump party, with a geographic base in the old progressive southwestern rural Ontario of Farquhar Oliver and Robert Nixon (son of Harry Nixon).

There are those who will tell you that there are still vague threads of the old progressive rural Ontario out there – the constituency that made the late 19th century Great Reform Grits of Oliver Mowat the provincial governing party, and that had its last big fling under Mitch Hepburn (“Canada’s Huey Long”) in the 1930s.

Gertha Reany, Farquhar Oliver, and Lilly Bailey unveiling historical plaque to Agnes Macphail, in Hopeville, Grey County, Ontario, 1960.

In some ways you might even say that Kathleen Wynne is a kind of spiritual descendant of Farquhar Oliver’s great friend Agnes Macphail – who started her political career in the far northern rural southwest of Grey County, and ended it in the Toronto suburb of East York. (Oh and btw, see as well Alice Munro’s quite beautiful Lives of Girls and Women.) But Ms Macphail also started her path-breaking feminist career with the United Farmers of Ontario, and ended it with the old Ontario CCF ancestor of today’s New Democrats. Which can all make you think that maybe the current mass media scepticism about the Ontario Liberals in 2012—2013 is not entirely misplaced. (So far at least – though there is that latest poll, which still shows that “the governing Grits have vaulted to second place, ahead of the New Democrats, and closed the gap with the Progressive Conservatives.” And how many even rural voters were actually paying attention to what went on in Ingersoll this past Saturday anyway?)

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