In May of last year – several months after his election victory, following a number of well-publicized meetings with Quebec Premier Jean Charest, and amid much eyebrow-raising over his apparent snubbing of the government of Canada’s largest province – Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally met face-to-face with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Of course, the way he did it raised some eyebrows just a little bit higher.
Harper met McGuinty for less than an hour in a Toronto hotel room, allowed no media to witness even a handshake, made no public statement following the encounter, and immediately headed next door to a provincial Conservative fundraising dinner where he introduced Ontario PC leader John Tory as “the next premier of Ontario.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, he added: “Ontario needs John Tory because a strong Canada needs a strong Ontario and because John Tory is a nation builder.”
It was a notable moment. Canadian Prime Ministers seldom involve themselves in provincial politics in such a blatantly partisan way.
Also, as a student of Canadian history, Harper should have known he was backing the wrong horse.
The reason? More often than not, when they get to make an electoral choice, Ontarians like to see different parties in power on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park.
For about 85 per cent (52.5 years) of the 62 years since the Second World War (when Liberal Mackenzie King was Prime Minister and Progressive Conservative George Drew was Ontario Premier), different parties have been in power federally and provincially. If you take out the six-year-long anomaly when John Diefenbaker’s and Leslie Frost’s respective PC parties governed at the same time, that statistic climbs to 94 per cent.
The Liberal Pearson / Trudeau years in Ottawa coincided with the PC Robarts / Davis years in Ontario. Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated constitutional accords with Liberal Premier David Peterson and NDP Premier Bob Rae. And as Jean Chrétien painted Ontario Liberal red in consecutive federal elections, Mike Harris painted the same map Tory blue in consecutive provincial votes.
In 17 post-War Ontario elections, only twice have voters elected a Premier from the same party as the sitting Prime Minister.
The last time, of course, was the most recent provincial election, in 2003, when McGuinty took power in the dying days of Jean Chrétien’s watch.
The statistics for federal elections are almost as lopsided. Fourteen out of the past twenty Canada-wide votes have been won by a different party than the sitting Ontario Premier’s.
So, with a Conservative government in power in Ottawa at the moment, the historical odds would seem to be in the Liberals’ favor for the upcoming provincial vote.
And despite his public comments to the contrary, with a federal election likely in the near future, you’d imagine that Stephen Harper would take a little bit of satisfaction away from a Dalton McGuinty re-election.