Ontario (Canada) 2011

Provincial elections were held in Ontario on October 6, 2011. All 107 members of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly were up for reelection. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province and traditionally the political and economic heart of Canada, accounting for some 38% of the country’s total GDP and 39% of the country’s population. Ontario’s manufacturing economy once made it the uncontested economic centre of the country, but the progressive decline of manufacturing in recent years has weakened Ontario’s economic and political clout within Canada and transformed it into one of those “have not” provinces while the resource-based economies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland rake in profits.

Ontario has been governed since 2003 by Dalton McGuinty of the Liberal Party. McGuinty won two straight majorities in 2003 and again in 2007, a feat unprecedented for a provincial Liberal leader since Mitch Hepburn in the 1930s. Ontario’s provincial politics between 1943 and 1985 were marked by the uninterrupted of the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) and their famous Big Blue Machine. Conservative Premiers in this 42-year dynastic rule in the province were moderate centrists, with progressive views on social issues, the welfare state and social programs. Following their defeat in 1943, the provincial Liberals shifted into a small, right-wing rural rump operating out of southwestern Ontario and roughly tied to the NDP in terms of popular support. However, the PCs shifted right with the election of Frank Miller to the party’s leadership in 1985 and the defeat of the Big Blue Machine’s dominance of provincial politics in the 1985 election when David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP came to a deal allowing Peterson to govern. Reelected with a huge majority in 1987, Peterson, however, went down to defeat in the 1990 election, during which the NDP surged out of nowhere to win a strong majority government. That stunning victory, however, proved a political anomaly as the NDP’s support dwindled in the course of Bob Rae’s five-year term due to the political costs of a recession and unpopular austerity policies of a government staffed with inexperienced first-termers. In 1995, it was not the Liberal opposition but rather the PCs, reborn on the right with Mike Harris, a populist conservative and fiery advocate of a “Common Sense Revolution”, who succeeded Rae in office. The neoliberal policies and NPM-style reforms of government associated with Harris’ Common Sense Revolution were not unusual to Canada, but Mike Harris became its most famous proponent of such policies because of his ‘in-your-face’ style of governance. Under Harris, the budget was balanced and income taxes were cut by 30%, at the cost of major cuts in social spending, deregulation of the energy sector, hospital closures, nurse layoffs and labour disputes with teachers (over education reforms). Reelected in 1999 over an inexperienced McGuinty, Mike Harris’ popularity wore off in the wake of the Walkerton water contamination scandal and when he stepped down, it was the moderate Ernie Eves who replaced him on a platform of slowly doing away with the controversy and conflict of Harris’ aggressive Common Sense Revolution. The moderate Eves, however, could not resist the tide of change and was defeated in a landslide by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.

McGuinty was not undefeatable going into the 2007 election. He had been dinged in 2004 for breaking a 2003 promise not to increase taxes, and the Liberals were weak in polls in the run-up to the 2007 election. The PCs had also gotten somebody who, initially, proved a popular and competent leader – John Tory. Tory was, like Eves, more on the party’s left and something of a Red Tory although favouring a larger role of the private sector in health care provision. However, Tory sabotaged the PC campaign when he came out in favour of extending public funding of separate religious schools to include religious schools of all denominations. In Ontario, Catholic schools are funded by the government just like public schools. The current system is unpopular, but extending the system to use tax money to fund Muslim or Jewish schools were even more unpopular. Tory misread the popular mood on the issue, and in transforming the election into a one-issue race about religious schools, he allowed the Liberals to run away with another large majority (the Liberals supported, like the NDP, the current system). Tory, who was running against a Liberal incumbent in Toronto, lost his race but did not resign the leadership of the PCs until 2009, when he was hilariously defeated in an attempt to return to the legislature in a safe Tory seat in rural Ontario.

Tory was replaced in 2009 by Tim Hudak, a Harris-era cabinet minister and a Blue Tory on the party’s right. Hudak’s strategy was to rebuild Mike Harris’ winning coalition of the 1990s uniting rural Ontario with affluent suburban voters in Toronto and the wider GTA. That same year, the NDP chose Andrew Horwath to succeed longtime leader Howard Hampton, who had failed to produce significant gains for the NDP in his three elections at the helm of the party.

At the outset of the year and after the May federal election, it looked as if it was likely that McGuinty would be defeated by Hudak’s PCs by a wide margin. McGuinty’s approval was pegged at just 16% earlier this year, and the PCs led the Liberals by over 10 points over the early summer. After eight years in power, voter fatigue was beginning to take its toll on the provincial Liberal government, and McGuinty had grown unpopular due to high taxes, a big budgetary deficit, an unpopular harmonized sales tax (HST), rising hydro bills and a eHealth scandal.

By September, however, the Liberals had managed to turn their fortunes around and transform a large deficit into a statistical tie with the PCs. Both Liberals and Tories remained statistically tied or marginally ahead of the other until the last stretch of the election, when the Liberals picked up steam and went into the final days of the campaign with a lead of 3-6 points over the PCs. McGuinty’s fightback from dead-on-arrival to a consistent lead over Hudak’s PCs lead in the final days was a pretty impressive fightback. The NDP, which won 17% in 2007, remained over their 2007 result during the course of the campaign and saw their support increase to an impressive 24-26% in the final days of the campaign after Horwath came out of the debate strengthened.

This race was Tim Hudak’s to lose. He started the pre-campaign with a wide lead, and there was no reason why he should have had trouble defeating a government with a 16% approval rating. The entire Liberal brand, furthermore, had been dealt a pretty huge blow in May (especially in Ontario), and it wasn’t outside the realm of possibilities that the provincial Liberals awaited a fate similar to that of the federal Liberals. Hudak’s campaign, undeniably, went wrong somewhere, because he turned a big lead into a tie and later into a polling deficit. Part of it might have been his past in the Harris cabinet, which is an easy target, and part of it might have been his penchant for sound-bytes rather than coherent policy. A lot of it comes from a poor platform (Liberals talked of a $14.8 billion ‘hole’ in the PC platform which would require massive cuts in health and education) and a poorly-managed populist campaign focused way too much on wedge issues like “high hydro bills”, “tax grabs” and the “tax-man” boogeyman rather than on stronger issues like a high deficit and unemployment. His insistence on transforming the Liberal pledge to give tax credits to businesses which hire new Canadians (less than 5 years in Canada) into an issue over “foreign workers” and “foreigners” went awfully wrong. A pamphlet attacking a Liberal anti-homophobia sex-ed policy was perceived as homophobic. Hudak failed to appear as a competent economic manager who could rid Ontario of a large deficit, and instead appeared as an amateurish populist who ran his entire campaign on sound-bytes and cheap catchphrases (and defending himself and his party from controversial statements). Hudak was unknown to voters before the campaign started, but he was unable to define himself before the Liberals did it for him.

To keep his party together like John Tory before him, Hudak was forced to tack right and please the most right-wing faction of the PC Party, a rural wing led by Randy Hillier. Hillier, a former boss of the very right-wing Ontario Landowners Association (OLA) had managed to get the PC nomination in the eastern Ontario riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington in 2007. In the 2009 leadership race, Hillier’s votes had given Hudak a major boost on the second ballot. This year, the OLA’s Jack MacLaren had managed to defeat longtime PC incumbent Norm Sterling in a nomination battle in the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills. Hillier and the OLA’s influence forced Hudak to take some starkly right-wing social conservative positions such as abolishing the Ontario Human Rights Commission. This in turn alienated some moderate Red Tories and led some old Tories like Norm Sterling, Ernie Eves or John Tory to worry about the PC Party’s shift to the right, perceived by some as a transformation of the PCs into a “Canadian Tea Party”.

McGuinty, in contrast, ran a generally well-handled campaign, despite his government’s wide unpopularity. The Liberals ran very much on a series of facts which McGuinty incessantly repeated in the campaign and in the debate (to the point where it grew annoying): more jobs created in Ontario than anywhere in Canada, shorter hospital wait times, more hospitals, smaller class sizes, no teacher strikes since taking office, opening more schools and leading the country in green energy jobs (which Hudak called ‘tax grabs’). In addition, in wake of tough economic times, McGuinty, like Harper in May, ran on his experience and warned voters of uncertain change in uncertain times. Like Harper’s campaign in May, thus, McGuinty’s campaign was about the need for an experienced and proven government in tough economic times. This proved a winning strategy, as it did for Harper’s Tories in May or for the recently reelected NDP government in Manitoba.

The Liberals also had two other things helping them out. Firstly, the provincial Liberals have a much stronger organization and GOTV machine than the pathetic federal Liberals have. Secondly, Ontario voters have historically shied away from electing two governments of the same colour in Toronto and Ottawa. When Mike Harris was in power in Toronto, Ontario voted solidly Liberal federally. In the later days of the Big Blue Machine, voters placed Conservatives in power in Toronto but voted Liberal federally. After reelecting McGuinty in 2007, voters in Ontario then voted Conservative federally in 2008 and 2011.

Turnout fell to an all-time low of 49.2%, meaning that over half of voters did not go out and vote. A field of three mediocre leaders, a boring campaign with no real issue and uninspiring talking points meant an historic low in turnout, which had already been an historic low of 52.6% in the 2007 election – which, similarly, was boring with no real inspiring party or issue.

Liberal 37.62% (-4.63%) winning 53 seats (-17)
PC 35.43% (+3.81%) winning 37 seats (+12)
NDP 22.73% (+5.96%) winning 17 seats (+7)
Green 2.94% (-5.08%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.28% (-0.12%) winning 0 seats (nc)

With a 2.2% edge in the popular vote, the governing Liberals won a third term – the first term in nearly a hundred years that a provincial Liberal government is able to do so. However, it will be a minority government and not another of the huge majority governments of 2003 and 2007. The Liberals fell one seat short of winning another majority government, so their minority will be a ‘strong minority’ where the support of only one or two opposition MPPs will be enough to carry the day. Bringing down this government would also require all opposition PC and NDP MPPs to vote against the government on a matter of confidence. Hudak’s PCs have sternly warned McGuinty that he better heed their advice or they will bring him down, but Horwath’s NDP has taken a far more conciliatory approach, saying that all parties should work together to guarantee stability and prevent a snap election too quickly.

The Liberals won this election in seat-rich Toronto and the larger GTA region. It was Conservative gains in this same region back in May which gave them a landslide victory in Ontario and guaranteed them a majority government. This election, however, the PCs remained completely shut out of the city of Toronto and failed to gain any seats in the larger GTA region. The suburban ridings in the GTA were crucial to Harris, and Hudak’s attempt to replicate the Harris coalition of 1995 and 1999 was dependent on major gains in these ridings and similar affluent suburban ridings in the Ottawa region. The PCs did put a lot of effort into these ridings, running strong candidates in their target ridings including Rocco Rossi, a former national director of the federal Liberals, in Eglinton-Lawrence. It was thus in these must-win seats like Eglinton-Lawrence, Don Valley West, Oakville, Ottawa West-Nepean or London West that the Conservatives really lost this election.

Two people can be blamed for this: Hudak himself and Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Elected in 2010, Toronto’s conservative mayor Rob Ford (although officially non-partisan, he is openly conservative) has grown quite unpopular with Toronto voters because of his controversial efforts to trim the city’s budget by cutting local library services, among other things. Stephen Harper coming out alongside Rob Ford and calling for a “hat trick” and electing Hudak provincially to “clean up the mess” didn’t help Hudak’s cause much. But Hudak himself is the one who deserves most of the blame. His amateurish populist campaign focused excessively on sound-bytes about tax grabs and foreign workers, and stuff about how Ontario is doing very badly didn’t resonate with crucial affluent, well-educated suburban voters. These voters like Harper because they believe Canada has done well in the recession, so they don’t really like Hudak’s talk about how hard life is in Ontario these days. If he had run a well-managed and coherent campaign about the deficit and the need for a more balanced budget, and in the process appeared as a moderate and competent economic manager, Hudak would likely have carried these voters. His populist campaign of sound-bytes, talking points and jumbled up ideas with little coherence didn’t appeal to those voters.

In May, Harper had done so well in Ontario because he had won those suburban voters in the GTA and traditionally conservative voters in rural Ontario – the same thing Mike Harris had done in his two elections. Hudak only managed to do one of those things: win the traditionally conservative voters in rural Ontario, a region where his social conservatism and economic populism plays out better. The PCs scored the bulk of their gains in rural Ontario, especially rural southwestern Ontario, an historically Liberal-voting block which the provincial Liberals had carried in 2007. In a lot of these ridings, they were helped by the retirement of popular long-time Liberal MPPs. The Conservatives won rural ridings such as Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, Chatham-Kent-Essex, Elgin-Middlesex-London and Nipissing by wide margins after the retirement of incumbent Liberals. They also managed to knock off, although more narrowly, Liberal incumbents in Huron-Bruce, Perth-Wellington, Prince Edward-Hastings or Northumberland-Quinte West. They fell short, however, in the Francophone eastern Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, an old Liberal fortress weakened by the retirement of the popular Liberal incumbent. In Essex, the death of the longtime Liberal MPP before the election helped the NDP gain the seat with a narrow margin over the PCs while the Liberals placed a distant third.

In must-win suburban ridings, however, the PCs often fell short. In much of downtown Toronto, there was a net swing towards the Liberals, and, by consequence, oftentimes a swing against the PCs or NDP. The PCs had not won a single seat in Toronto in 2007 either, but came within 6% in Eglinton-Lawrence and winning 11% in Don Valley West. This year, the Tories were 21% short in Eglinton-Lawrence a full 28% short in Don Valley West, both ridings in which the Liberal incumbent improved on his or her 2007 result by a significant amount. They came a bit closer in York Centre, but the swing against the Liberals and to the PCs in that riding was still below the provincial average. In Oakville, the Conservatives fell short by 10% and other targets such as London West or Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale weren’t even close. In Ottawa, the Conservatives failed to knock off incumbent Liberal MPP and former mayor Bob Chiarelli in Ottawa West-Nepean by a much closer 2.3% margin despite having a pretty high-profile former columnist as their candidate. In my own riding of Ottawa-Orleans, where the Liberals won by a bit less than 6%, the Conservatives could not defeat an incumbent Liberal despite a string of endorsements from newspapers and two local councillors. All of these ridings are held federally by Conservative MPs, and all of them are some of the must-win ridings for a Conservative majority in Ontario.

The result of this strange state of affairs is that the four best Liberal results in all of Ontario come from affluent, well-educated urban/suburban ridings: St. Paul’s (58.4), Don Valley West (58.3), Toronto Centre (54.9) and Eglinton-Lawrence (54.3). What’s more, both Don Valley West and Eglinton-Lawrence are held by the Tories federally. Urban voters were definitely put off by Hudak’s feisty rural populism, and similar voters in suburban ridings preferred to stay the course with the Liberals – just like they had preferred to stay the course with the Conservatives federally. In other similarly well-educated, generally affluent and urbane ridings such as Kingston, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo or Ottawa Centre there was a net swing to the Liberals. This year’s Liberal coalition is thus affluent, highly educated, very urban or suburban and whiter than before.

The NDP did well in this election, gaining seven seats and improving their popular vote by nearly 6% to win the best result for the Ontario NDP since the end of the Rae years. It was perhaps not as much as they could have hoped for, with polling giving the NDP up to 26% support, but it is still a rather significant result for them. Horwath performed strongly in the debate and her “putting people first” platform appealed to some voters who disliked both McGuinty and Hudak. The NDP’s results, however, were quite interesting. They won big in rural northern Ontario, but failed to perform as well as expected in urban areas in northern Ontario such as Sudbury or Thunder Bay. They performed well in industrial Hamilton, where they won the last Liberal held seat, or in London where they picked up London-Fanshawe. In both Windsor ridings, they fell far short of winning, but they did score a surprising upset in neighboring Essex. In Toronto, they picked up Davenport, largely on the back of a collapse in the Green vote. One of their most significant gains was Jagmeet Singh’s victory in the suburban multicultural riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton. Singh had come within 539 votes of winning the same seat in the May federal election, and managed to do so this election, in the process becoming the first NDP representative either federally or provincially from the Peel region.

There are other strong performances in the NDP’s results across the province, indicating room for growth. The NDP did well in rural Ontario, and also performed rather well in poorer, multicultural ridings in Toronto such as Scarborough-Rouge River (the NDP came within 6% of knocking off the Liberals) – a formerly solidly Liberal seat now held federally by the NDP, or York West. At the same time, poor Liberal showings in parts of Mississauga, Brampton, Scarborough and Vaughan should be cause for concern for  the Liberals. Poor Liberal showings in the bulk of rural Ontario should also concern some Liberals, but Liberal majorities without strong performances in rural Ontario are certainly not impossible.

In other ridings, however, the NDP did not do as well as expected. Former MPP Paul Ferreira failed to win back his old seat of York South-Weston, but most significantly the NDP came within 2.8% of losing the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina to the Liberals. The Liberals also performed threateningly well in other NDP-held seats in Toronto including Parkdale-High Park and Beaches-East York. Another heartbreak for the NDP was Ottawa Centre, which is held by the NDP’s Paul Dewar federally and which the NDP came within 4% of winning in 2007 against then first-time candidate Yasir Naqvi. Despite a strong NDP effort, Naqvi increased his vote by over 11% and turned a marginal hold on his seat into a 17.7% margin. The NDP also performed poorly, when compared to its May 2011 result, in next-door Ottawa-Vanier.

Why did the NDP perform so poorly in these downtown ridings in did so well in back in May? Andrea Horwath led a very populist campaign, and her key points: taking the HST off gas/hydro or cancelling a Toronto commuter rail project because the trains are made in Quebec – did not do the NDP much favours in bobo-type well educated urban ridings such as Trinity-Spadina or Ottawa Centre. Cancelling light rail didn’t go down well in downtown Toronto, and voters in such urban ridings don’t really benefit from taking the HST off the price of gas, because most of them don’t drive to work. The NDP platform appealed much more to old manufacturing towns such as Hamilton or eastern London, and not as much to downtown urban ridings where Horwath’s shift away from the NDP’s traditional pro-environment positions left some traditional NDP voters out in the dark.

The Greens, with less than 3%, returning to the 2003 lows. The Greens were hurt by the lack of media coverage for their campaign and their exclusion from the debates. The closeness of this election likely encouraged a lot of their voters to vote strategically for either the Liberals and NDP, who both benefited from a collapse in the Green vote in various constituencies. The Greens tend to perform much better when the election’s outcome is not in much doubt or when no other party is able to connect with voters. The Green leader Mike Schreiner won only 8.8% in Simcoe-Grey and the best Green result was 14.6% in Dufferin-Caledon.


Posted on October 8, 2011, in Canada, Ontario, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice resumé, which is right on.

    However the main thing about the NDP vote is that the result in some ridings was far less than excepted. For example, Ottawa Centre which was much closer in 2007 than today (ok, maybe the incumbent is helping a little bit) . Also, the two Windsor ridings, especially the one where the incumbent was retiring have a tendency of being a wasteland for federal Liberal but not provincial Liberals. The weird thing however like you mentioned is that rural Northern Ontario is more NDP-friendly than urban Ontario.

    One thing to note also is the fact that some ridings which are NDP safe ridings are not safe anymore due to changing demographics. Take Trinity-Spadina or Toronto-Danforth which are going weaker and weaker for the NDP. In the same time former Liberal fortress like Scarborough-Rouge River or York West are becoming less and less Liberal. The federal by-election in TD in the next months will be interesting to watch.

    For the PC, the main problem is the 905 (plus the fact that they could not win the 2 suburban ridings in Ottawa which are swing ridings), which is crucial to win any election in Ontario. To be frank with you, the Tories did quite well (even better than I excepted) in rural Southern Ontario which the Liberals were quite awful in quite a few rural ridings. Even more ironically that traditionally, rural Southwest Ontario was a former Liberal fortress.

    Except for a few cities, federal Tories have won almost all mid-sized cities in Southern Ontario plus Sault Ste Marie (except Guelph and Kingston) while the provincial Tories only won Barrie, Owen Sound, Cornwall, Cambridge, Burlington, North Bay (Nipissing is a different riding provincially than federally) and Sarnia (even through they are doing better in rural parts on the riding).

    At the end, I will not be surprised of seeing an election in two years. Remember, there is a rule that in Ontarian politics each winning leader have to lose one election until being in power. Mike Harris lost the 1990 election and Dalton McGuinty lost the 1999 election. I am sure also that many potential electors did stayed at home this time which was not the case in the last federal election this may.

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