Ontarians ready for change but don’t like their choices
Until the two opposition parties get over their past 'traumas', Ontario will continue to drift
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September 3, 2012
TORONTO, ON, Sep 3, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Normally, Ontarians don’t spend a lot of time thinking about provincial politics. In fact, unlike other provinces, where terms like ‘Albertan, Nova Scotian, or British Columbian’ roll trippingly off the tongues of media personalities, politicians and citizens alike, ‘Ontarians’ always sounds a little contrived to the Ontario ear.
Ontarians normally think of themselves as Canadians, so they pay a little more attention to Ottawa than other Canadians usually do, and a little less attention to their provincial affairs. ‘Queens Park’ – the location of the Legislature – is an afterthought.
A year ago, Ontarians went to the polls. The result was a minority government. This past week two by-elections were held.
The litany of woes – eHealth, ORNGE, power bills, a doubling of the provincial debt in eight years, rising taxes, the province falling to 10th out of 10 for economic prospects – make people want to have a change.
Their problem, back in 2011, was that the main opposition party ran yet another abysmal campaign, and converted a 15 per cent lead on the day the election was called into another defeat. So Premier Dalton McGuinty was returned one more time.
Ontario politics has been broken for a long time.
There was a time when the Ontario PCs were the province’s ‘natural governing party’, holding power for 42 years. That ended in 1985, when Liberal David Peterson and NDP leader Bob Rae brought down the PC minority of Frank Miller and exercised power under a two-year plan. Peterson won re-election with a majority as a result.
Three years later, jumping early to the polls in the depths of a recession caused by the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement and the GST, Bob Rae won power.
Both Peterson and Rae spent a great deal of time on national issues: the Meech Lake Agreement and the Charlottetown Accord filled their days. Meanwhile Ontario’s debts mounted and its economy languished.
Rae did make a start on digging the province out of its mess – he inherited substantial overspending from Peterson – but split his NDP doing it. For years the NDP would present leaders and policies to Ontarians that ‘restored the NDP program’, and were regularly rejected as a result. Only current leader Andrea Horwath has started to overcome this – and she is the most popular political leader in the province as a result.
Meanwhile, Rae was succeeded by the wedge that would confound the PC party – Mike Harris. Harris finished the operational deficit-fighting Rae had started with his Common Sense Revolution but, unlike Alberta’s Ralph Klein, didn’t tackle the provincial debt. He also undertook many policies that fractured PC support in major cities, such as the forced amalgamation of municipalities. But Common Sense PCism had little in common with the PCs that had ruled Ontario for four decades. Harris’ successor, Ernie Eves, lost government after a couple of years.
Enter McGuinty and the Liberals in 2003. Since then, ‘Harris’ has been the Liberals’ prime whipping boy, and ‘what to do about Harris’ has been the question confounding the PCs. The party can’t quite decide whether to embrace Harris or reject him. This has led to one bad policy move, and one bad electoral move, after another.
Meanwhile, McGuinty’s government has been plagued throughout by financial irregularities and perceived giveaways to the public sector – but the PCs and NDP have let Ontarians down with their own woes.
Despite the bad memories of the Rae years, Ontario’s first and only NDP government was so long ago now – between immigrants coming to Canada since then and young people coming of voting age more than one quarter of Ontarians literally have no experience of it – that Horwath’s NDP is beginning to be able to escape the old battles. Actually, if the PCs would pay attention, they’d notice the same numbers, more or less, apply to the Harris years: almost all the things people slam Harris for took place in 1995-97. Fifteen years later, it’s a new electorate – and the need to apologize, duck or explain is over.
The steady rise of the Conservatives federally in Ontario – they hold 73 of the province’s 107 seats (Ontario’s provincial ridings map precisely to the federal ones, allowing for cross-comparison of public opinion) – shows part of the changes in public opinion. (So, too, the NDP holding 22 of Ontario’s seats in Ottawa.) What’s missing in Ontario is for its two opposition parties to get over their past traumas and start to speak with confidence again to Ontarians.
Until then, Ontario will drift.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Stewart, a Toronto-based management consultant, will be keeping an Eye on Ontario each Monday.
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