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Ontario: No Political Hat Trick

12 Oct

Back in the middle of the summer, when politics and elections were the furthest things from most people’s minds, Toronto mayor Rob Ford hosted a barbecue for 800 of his closest friends.

It was a special event honoring federal finance minister Jim Flaherty for his work helping Toronto-area candidates make historic breakthroughs during the federal election earlier this year.

Those federal breakthroughs came about six months after Ford’s own breakthrough victory in Toronto – a steak-and-potatoes conservative mayor winning power in what some perceive as a brie-and-white-wine liberal city.

The barbecue came to the attention of the media because of a surprise guest who showed up to address the gathering: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a video of the event shot by one of the barbecue guests and later posted online, Harper made partisan comments about Ontario politics:

“We started cleaning up the left wing mess federally in this area,” Harper said. “Rob’s doing it municipally. And now we’ve got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well.”

When Harper made those remarks in early August, it seemed likely that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak had a good chance of completing that conservative hat trick. Only two months before the scheduled provincial election, his party sat comfortably atop public opinion polls, and the trend over many months had shown Progressive Conservative support growing as support for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals steadily fell.

In retrospect, Hudak was trying to swim against a couple of longstanding currents in Ontario politics. The first was the tendency of Ontarians to give party leaders some extended time on the opposition benches before they are willing to vote them into government. Hudak’s two immediate predecessors as PC leader – John Tory and Ernie Eves – learned that lesson the hard way, as did McGuinty himself when he was trounced by Mike Harris in his first election campaign as Liberal leader in 1999.

The second – even more unfailing – current was the tendency of Ontario voters to vote in different parties provincially than they do federally. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals held power in Ottawa, so did Bill Davis’s Tories at Queens Park. In the ‘80s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative governments negotiated with Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario. In the ‘90s, Liberals under Jean Chretien owed successive majority victories to Ontario voters, who handed them near-sweeps of this province. At the same time, they were giving Mike Harris similar victories in provincial elections. Finally, the current Harper era in federal politics has coincided with the McGuinty era in Ontario.

When the video of Harper’s barbecue speech showed up online, his aides seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t helpful to the Hudak campaign, or to the conservative cause, for the Prime Minister to be seen making such a blatant partisan intervention into a provincial election campaign. A bit of an Internet cat-and-mouse game ensued, with Conservatives trying to remove every online appearance of the video as quickly as McGuinty supporters could get it reposted.

As I have written before on this blog, it helps to imagine this province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lop-sided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that right-leaning parties usually win easily in both provincial and federal elections.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-shaped target, where the most urban neighborhoods of our cities and the least-populated stretches of our northern regions lie. When New Democrats do well in Ontario – as they did in both elections this year – the perimeter of the province grows a deeper shade of orange.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that expands or shrinks at the expense of the other colors, depending on the Grits’ success from election to election.

In May’s federal election, the Tories and the NDP both took big bites out of different sides of that donut – most notably in Toronto-area ridings. The result was the worst showing ever for the federal Liberal party.

In Ontario earlier this month, it was Toronto voters – and to a lesser extent those in Ottawa and a few other urban areas – who preserved the red donut enough to give the McGuinty Liberals a narrow minority victory.

It’s hard to know if Harper’s comments helped McGuinty win. But they certainly underlined the fact that in this province, political hat tricks are hard to come by.


Lesson from Ontario: Politics matter

14 Oct

John Tory ran his campaign to become Premier of Ontario under the motto “Leadership Matters”. The lesson to be drawn from that disastrous campaign? Politics matter.

Tory’s campaign crashed and splintered on the shoals of his promise to extend public funding to non-Catholic faith-based schools. It was a policy born of conviction and principles, he repeatedly said.

He said it even after he reversed course late in the campaign and – in an attempt to quash a rebellion over the issue within the Progressive Conservative base itself – announced he would subject the policy to a free vote, which likely would have killed it before it could be implemented.

Conviction does matter, of course. And yes, principles and policies also matter. But in the absence of politics – the process by which those-who-would-lead persuade those-who-would-be-led to follow them down any particular path – conviction and policies can be as hollow as… well… as hollow as John Tory’s campaign turned out to be.

Even with all the personal conviction in the world, you cannot lead a team of people without first convincing them to go in the same direction as you.

In the wake of the campaign results, there are even stories emerging that the very groups to whom this policy should have most appealed – religious and cultural groups who have been lobbying for funding for many years – were not completely onside.

They were supportive of the policy, but uncomfortable both with the way it was handled by Tory, and also with his apparent inability to foresee and quell the backlash it provoked.

Indeed, the Progressive Conservatives may have hoped the faith-based school funding issue would help them make electoral gains among different minority communities, but there was little evidence of that on voting day.

They won back the riding of Thornhill, with its large Jewish population, but failed to make any other inroads in Ontario’s many multicultural suburban and urban ridings. John Tory himself failed to win a seat in Don Valley West, exactly that sort of riding.

On the other side of the coin, Dalton McGuinty made history this election by becoming the first Liberal Premier of Ontario in seven decades to win back-to-back majorities. But insomuch as he accomplished this feat by exploiting Tory’s mishandling of the faith-based school funding issue, it is worth noting that his party’s election strategy did little to promote the “social cohesion” he said he was defending.

By explicitly connecting faith-based schools to the “strife, struggle and controversy” found on the streets of Western Europe, where debates over multiculturalism have occasionally turned violent in recent years, McGuinty turned up the heat and emotions on the issue. He has credibly been accused of using coded language to appeal to majority fears of minority groups. Especially Muslims.

At the same time, the Liberal leader never clearly answered questions about his own contradictory position against religious school funding, except when it comes to Roman Catholic schools – a defense of the Ontario public education status quo, which has been condemned by a committee of the United Nations.

It served the Liberals well as a short-term strategy. By obfuscating their own contradictions, they may have attracted voters who were opposed to funding any faith-based schools, including Roman Catholic.

In the wake of John Tory’s experience, it is unlikely any mainstream political party will want to touch this issue again for many years. But they may not have a choice.

Opinion polls show a rising backlash not only against extending funding to non-Catholic schools, but also against perpetuating the Catholic separate school system itself.

So far, the only political party in agreement with that sentiment is the Green Party of Ontario, which did not win any seats this election, but did increase its vote more than any other party.

As long as one faith’s schools are funded to the exclusion of others, the issue will remain on the table. And so long as it does remain, the future status of all religious schools – including Catholic separate schools – is uncertain.

Ontario election: All bets are in

9 Oct

Don’t just take the word of the polls

If you are a savvy betting elector, you will already know that more than one election prediction / seat projection website is forecasting not only a Liberal majority in tomorrow’s Ontario election, but also a bigger – or just slightly smaller – majority than the Grits won in 2003. If that happens, Dalton McGuinty will become the first Liberal Premier of Ontario in 70 years to win back-to-back majorities.

And John Tory may be toast.

And so may the election-prediction-website industry, if MMP passes and renders obsolete all of the First-Past-the-Post-based prediction models.

While we still have our FPTP system, here’s a handy way to watch the returns coming in tomorrow:

In terms of electoral politics, it helps to imagine the province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lopsided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the Progressive Conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that John Tory’s party should retain, barring a complete meltdown.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-target, where the most urban neighborhoods of Ontario’s cities and the least-populated expanses of its northern regions lie. In the last election, New Democrats won seven Ontario seats – all on this “outer edge” – and picked up three more in subsequent byelections.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that’s covered most of Ontario’s ridings for the past four years.

Observers of federal politics will remember that during the Chrétien years of the 1990s, the Liberal donut squeezed in the conservative parties and pushed out the NDP, winning all but a handful of seats. With no donut hole, Ontario was a big Liberal pancake as far as federal politics was concerned.

There are probably only two ridings in the entire province where the NDP and the Tories compete with each other – Oshawa and London-Fanshawe. Generally, those parties work from different sides of both the political and geographical spectrums, trying to squeeze in the Liberals by stealing some of their suburban and urban seats. And the Liberals? They hope to bake up a bigger, puffier donut.

So there’s my Ontario election analysis: Tricolor target and… fried dough.

Better end this post quickly, lest I fall too deeply into the pit of political geekiness.

But before I go, a programming note:

For a less horse-racey, hopefully more enlightening, look at the campaign-about-to-end, have a look at this show, airing tonight and produced by me.

The Religious Education… Timebomb?

1 Oct

John Tory announced today that if he is elected Premier, he will subject his campaign-defining faith-based-school-funding proposal to a free vote of MPPs.

The announcement does a couple of things:

1) It mothballs a promise Tory has repeatedly described as one of principle and fairness. Probably for good. Even if today’s gambit defies the odds and turns around his party’s fortunes, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where faith-based funding would win a free vote in a legislature almost certain to have a majority of members – of all parties – opposed to the policy.

One possible scenario – if Tory should win (a very big “if”, as a poll today suggested he may lose his own riding) – would have him introduce the measure, allow it to lose a free vote, claim a moral victory and move on. That’s what Stephen Harper did last year on same-sex marriage.

In any scenario, it’s hard to spin the announcement as anything other than a de facto abandonment of the proposal.

2) Today’s announcement acknowledges Tory’s failure to communicate the merits of his policy not only to Ontarians, but to his own party. Principled or not, Tory’s handling of the matter has rightfully raised serious questions about his political smarts.

Before the campaign began, I described this issue as a potential minefield for all parties. In retrospect, Tory stepped on all the mines and gave Dalton McGuinty a clear path through.

The Liberal strategy has walked a tightrope between muddying the contradictions of the party’s own position (against faith-based funding, except when it comes to Catholic schools), while painting the Conservative proposal as nothing other than a scheme to undermine public education.

It may have been good election strategy. But in the long run, it may prove to be a bad strategy for achieving what the Liberals say is their goal: The defense of the Ontario public education status quo.

After dominating the campaign, the debate will not likely go away. In fact, it has proven to be a timebomb of an issue that explodes every so often in Ontario, as long as one faith’s schools are funded and others’ are not.

Maintaining that status quo ensures the inevitability of another explosion of the debate. And – as one commentator argues – the collateral damage next time may be the Roman Catholic school system itself.

Blog Entry 2.0

29 Sep

If you are reading this blog – and I’m pretty sure you are – you are participating in what all the cool kids call Web 2.0, of which blogging is but one element.

If you are reading this blog because you are interested in politics and you appreciate all the original, incisive, keen political content herein, perhaps you are also interested in what some of the cool kids call Politics 2.0: How the new-generation Web is affecting the political process and, especially, the way political campaigns are run.

For some background, you can check out a podcast of a show I produced on the topic several months back by clicking here.

Over at his Fifth Column blog, my colleague Mike Miner – described as “The Joke Machine” in at least one national newspaper column – is ably covering the Politics 2.0 elements of the current Ontario election campaign.

Surfing through the links he provides to the YouTube campaign, to the various parties’ attack sites, and more, two thoughts spring to mind:

1) In the case of the current campaign, the impact of this stuff is still indirect (but not irrelevant). Its biggest audience probably remains young political partisans and, most importantly, members of the mainstream media, through whom it bubbles up to the attention of the broad voting public.

2) Ever since Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle he was “no Jack Kennedy”, political debates inevitably spawn dozens of accounts lamenting the lack of a “knockout blow”. That’s because Bentsen-Quayle (or its Can-Con equivalent here) was the exception, not the rule. Similarly, in the brave new 2.0 World, backroom political operators looking for “macacamoments will often need to settle for hyping the significantly less scandalous.

Reasonably accommodating?

26 Sep

Less than a year ago, when everyone knew a provincial election was imminent, I asked a well-known Quebec journalist to assess the chances of Mario Dumont’s right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec party.

The journalist told me the ADQ was “fading away” from the political scene – so much so that Dumont had jokingly worn a “Hello, My Name is Mario” badge on his jacket at a recent event in Quebec City.

He predicted Dumont would quit provincial politics following another disappointing electoral showing, and would run as a Conservative Party candidate in the next federal vote.

I hope that journalist didn’t put any money on his prediction.

In fact, when the provincial vote finally did take place in March, anyone who bet on the results almost certainly would have lost their wager.

The first minority government in Quebec since the 19th century?

The Parti Québécois reduced to third-party status in the legislature?

Mario Dumont becoming Leader of the Opposition, only a few seats short of taking power with a group of faceless, experience-less backwoods backbenchers?

Who knew?

Not me. Not you. None of the prominent prognosticating political pundits in the province predicted this possibility.

How did Dumont go from being a political has-been to a Premier-in-waiting?

Probably by owning the so-called “reasonable accommodation” issue, which has come to dominate public affairs in Quebec, and is becoming prominent in the rest of Canada.

It’s not a new issue: Debates over the assimilation of minority groups and the nature of multiculturalism are as old as immigration itself, and bubble under the surface of many other issues in the public sphere.

The debate boiled over earlier this year in Hérouxville, a small, largely homogeneous Quebec town that garnered international headlines by passing a resolution aimed at largely non-existent foreign “new arrivals” to the town. The resolution banned such things as stoning women to death and burning at the stake.

While Premier Jean Charest dismissed Hérouxville as an isolated incident, Dumont took up the cause, positioned himself as the champion of old-stock Quebec values, and rode that position all the way into the opposition leader’s office in Quebec City.

Charest, meanwhile, created a commission to travel the province and look into the reasonable accommodation question (and also – charged Chantal Hébert – to avoid having to take a political stand on the issue)

Led by two academics, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the commission is in the middle of public hearings that – according to one account – resemble “a roving road show that has given an open mike to anyone who wants to muse out loud about religion and minorities”.

The reasonable accommodation issue is not limited to provincial politics in Quebec. In the lead-up to last week’s by-elections, federal parties were falling all over each other to attack the Chief Electoral Officer’s decision to allow Muslim women to vote without lifting their veils – a decision based on laws those very same parties wrote.

The Prime Minister – whose party appeals to the same voters in Quebec as Dumont’s – even interrupted an official visit to Australia to blast Elections Canada. His party, of course, subsequently did very well in the two by-elections held in the Quebec heartland.

Of course, this is hardly a Quebec-only issue. There are similar debates all over the democratic world.

In Ontario, the faith-based-school funding debate that is dominating the current provincial election campaign represents another battle over reasonable accommodation. In this case, how far should the education system go to accommodate minority religious groups? Some of the language used by the Ontario Liberals in the campaign – warning against “segregation” and threats to social cohesion – is certainly Dumont-like.

It’s not a debate that will disappear anytime soon. An SES poll released this week shows reasonable accommodation is very much a top-of-mind concern for many Canadians.

Will politicians continue to exploit that concern? You can bet on it.

Ontario election: Voting by faith

20 Sep

With the faith-based school funding issue so prominent in the current Ontario campaign, democraticspace offers some interesting number-crunching and analysis of where the votes of various religious groups may be going, and how the funding issue may affect the election results.

Also, on the topic of the election, the only leaders’ debate of the campaign begins at 6:30 p.m. The moderator is my colleague Steve Paikin, who offers some behind-the-scenes sneak peeks for election junkies here.