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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.

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Stéphane Dion, Joe Clark and John Tory

1 Nov

On the evening of Dec. 2, 2006, in a wide corridor of Montreal’s Palais des congrès, I bumped into a political lobbyist of my acquaintance.

Both of us were trudging slowly through the middle of a large, loud and excited crowd of people, everyone leaving the main hall of the convention centre and heading out the doors toward the charms of downtown Montreal Saturday night.

Not too much earlier, inside the main hall, Stéphane Dion stood on a confetti-laden stage, flanked by Jean Chrétien, John Turner, and Paul Martin, three former residents of 24 Sussex Drive.

As the music blared and Dion waved to the thousands of convention delegates who had just elected him as the newest – and perhaps unlikeliest – leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, he had every reason to believe he would one day also live in the same house, and hold the same title of Prime Minister, as had the men surrounding him.

After all, of the ten Liberals who preceded Dion as leader, only one – Edward Blake – had failed to become Prime Minister of Canada. And Blake’s leadership of the party came to an end in 1887.

Dion had just won a job that had provided a surefire ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office for almost twelve decades straight.

The delegates seemed as united as could be expected after a dramatic, emotion-laden convention that saw Dion go from fourth to first place over two days and four ballots.

He had come into the convention with the estimated support of about 15 per cent of the delegates, well behind front-runner Michael Ignatieff’s 28 per cent.

But on the final ballot, with only Dion and Ignatieff left standing, he beat the former front-runner 55 to 45 per cent.

He was a compromise candidate, sure, coming up the middle of a bitter, divisive rivalry between Ignatieff and Bob Rae. But as they streamed out of the convention hall, most delegates seemed happy with the choice, many of them won over by Dion’s fresh message of change, integrity and environmentalism. Some felt they had dodged a bullet by picking the best candidate to unite the party behind a new kind of politics and a new, greener vision of Liberalism.

My hard-bitten acquaintance in the crowded hallway wasn’t buying any of it. He had come to the convention as a Rae supporter, and was departing it shaking his head, unmoved by the victory of the bookish Dion.

“The Liberals,” he said to me moments after I offered my greetings, “just had their Joe Clark moment.”

Almost two years later, the comparison has proven apt. Dion, like Clark three decades earlier when he won the Progressive Conservative leadership, had few allies in his party, won the leadership by default when more charismatic and prominent rivals failed to earn enough delegate trust, and promptly developed a reputation as an honorable-but-bumbling leader with big ideas but few political smarts to implement them.

After leading his party in last month’s federal election to one of the worst electoral defeats in its history, and then reluctantly announcing he was stepping down from the leadership, Dion has joined Edward Blake as the answer to a newly rephrased political trivia question:

Who were the only two Liberal leaders who failed to become Prime Minister?

In his electoral campaign, Dion resembled not so much Joe Clark but more John Tory, the Ontario PC leader who crashed and burned in last year’s provincial election campaign.

Both Dion and Tory ran big policy ideas up the flagpole for voters – Tory’s was public funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools and Dion’s was the so-called Green Shift, which promised income tax cuts to balance out a new carbon tax that would help fight climate change – but neither leader bothered to check beforehand if members of his own party were saluting.

After Tory lost the election last year, here’s what I wrote about his campaign here:

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.

The description fits Dion’s campaign, too.

Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills perceived that day by at least one clear-eyed observer in the crowd.

Picking through election entrails

15 Oct

Suppose they held an election and nothing happened?

Not too much, anyway.

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the 2.5-year-old minority Parliament to be unworkable.

In search of a more workable mandate, he violated his own fixed-election-date legislation to dissolve that Parliament and send Canadians to the polls for the third time in four years.

Five weeks, 300-million-dollars, one pooping puffin controversy, two roundtable debates, dozens of negative ads, and one international economic crisis later, did he get that mandate?

Well… kinda.

Sorta.

In his third kick at the can as party leader, Harper’s Conservatives gained a few seats, but still fell short of a majority government. And thanks to some ill-received policies and poorly executed strategies, the party failed to build upon its big Quebec breakthrough in the last election, once again winning ten seats in that province.

The NDP, under Jack Layton, also picked up a few more seats, but fell far short of the goal Layton publicly and repeatedly set. He said he was running for Prime Minister, but ended up once again as the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons.

With the help of some Conservative self-inflicted wounds, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois won by holding steady. Once again, the Bloc showed that rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated, as it won the lion’s share of Quebec seats for the sixth straight election. More than any other factor, it is the Bloc’s enduring ability to hold onto dozens of Quebec seats that accounts for the fact that Canadians have elected minority governments in three elections running.

The Green Party won a plethora of publicity and media attention, a seat at the table of the televised leaders’ debates for leader Elizabeth May, and in the end, exactly zero seats in the House of Commons for all its efforts.

And then there is the Liberal Party…

Oh, the Liberals…

It was one of the worst election results ever for the Grits, once known as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. The Liberals won only eight seats west of Ontario, suffered a net loss of seats in their Atlantic Canada stronghold, and made some marginal gains in Quebec, where they continued to be almost exclusively limited to the island of Montreal.

But the most telling results for the Liberal Party came in Ontario. A decade ago, the party regularly won almost all of the available seats in this province. This time around, it didn’t even take most of those 106 seats.

Conservative candidates won almost half of all Ontario ridings, the NDP increased its seat count in the province by almost 50 per cent by taking away Liberal seats in Northern Ontario, and the Liberal Party was in retreat everywhere save its electoral fortress of Toronto.

Even in the country’s largest city, the Conservatives began showing signs of breaching the Liberal castle walls. They took several seats in the suburban 905 region just outside of Toronto.

And Conservative star candidate Peter Kent won the riding of Thornhill, which borders the city of Toronto.

Thornhill happens to be the riding with the largest per-capita Jewish population in the province. It also happens to be the one riding the provincial Progressive Conservative party picked up in their wretched campaign during last year’s Ontario election.

Picking through the entrails of this year’s federal vote, there were several other signs the Conservative Party has made some headway in their attempts to win over the support of the traditionally big-L-Liberal so-called ethnic vote.

The Conservatives took several ridings with diverse multicultural populations from the Liberals in Ontario and British Columbia. And in Toronto proper, ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, and Willowdale – ridings with significant minority-group populations that are usually among the safest Liberal seats in the country – featured much tighter races.

In 2006, Liberal Joe Volpe won Eglinton-Lawrence by defeating his Conservative rival by more than 11,000 votes. This time around, Volpe’s margin of victory was reduced to 2,200.

Within hours – minutes even – of the final vote count, quotes from anonymous Liberals began appearing in the media calling for the head of leader Stéphane Dion.

Fighting his first election as leader, Dion failed miserably to reverse his party’s slide of the past few years.

But the nearly bankrupt and disunited Liberals can ill-afford another lengthy, expensive and divisive leadership race.

After all, we’ve ended up with another minority Parliament, and Canadians may be going to the polls yet again before too long.

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.

Grits: Paranoia strikes deep…

5 Oct

A sign of the chaotic state of the Liberal Party of Canada these days may be a heightened receptiveness to unfounded rumors.

Yesterday, Liberal BlackBerrys all over Parliament Hill buzzed with an email originating from a senior party member stating  former cabinet minister Joe Volpe was about to cross the floor to the Conservatives.

The rumor probably grew out of news this week that Volpe supported the faith-based school funding policy of Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory. But to suggest he would go from that to jumping ship to Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives raises a few obvious questions:

Why would Volpe do this after Tory backed down on his proposal?

Why would Volpe cross the floor of the House of Commons over a provincial issue?

Volpe is the longtime MP for one of the safest Liberal seats in the country – why would he want to commit political suicide?

Shortly after the first email, a second one buzzed into Blackberrys across the Hill – this one from the Liberal Whip’s office. It read:

I have just spoken with Joe.  The suggestion that he would be anything but a Liberal is absolute fabrication. Hope this puts the issue to rest. 

And everyone went back to waiting for the next crisis…

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.