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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.

The Blue Wave

16 May

This month’s federal election results seemed to herald many dramatic changes in Canadian politics. Some of the obvious ones: Canadians elected a majority Conservative government for the first time in a generation; The NDP became the Official Opposition for the first time ever; The Bloc Quebecois was reduced to four seats; and voters handed the Liberal Party its worst drubbing in history, and an existential crisis to Liberal loyalists.

As is often the case, the full extent of the change did not become apparent until the votes were actually counted. Opinion polls certainly picked up on the NDP surge in Quebec, but few predicted that the party – which had only ever elected two Quebec MPs in its 50-year history – would win all but a small handful of seats in that province.

Even more surprising was the so-called “Blue Wave” that hit both the suburbs and the city of Toronto. There was a strong expectation the Conservative Party would make gains in a number of previously Liberal-held ridings in the Greater Toronto Area:  In places such as Mississauga, Brampton, and Pickering. In the end, the Conservatives won almost all of those suburban seats, plus a number of urban Toronto seats that had not elected federal Conservative MPs since the days of Brian Mulroney.

Toronto-area voters gave the Conservative Party its majority, and crushed the Liberal Party. There was no other region of the country where Conservatives made such dramatic inroads in comparison to the 2008 election.

As dramatic and relatively unexpected as it was, the Conservative breakthrough in the Greater Toronto Area was a long time coming, and characterized by slow-and-steady growth from election to election since conservative factions reunited into one party in 2003.

Much has been written – including by me – about the Conservatives’ successful courting over time of the votes of ethnic minority groups that traditionally voted Liberal, including the votes of the Jewish community. With so many of those groups concentrated in the GTA, this was an obvious factor in the party’s majority win.

Of course, voting is anonymous, so it’s impossible to know with any great degree of certainty how much of the “ethnic” vote – Jewish or otherwise – swung to the Conservatives this time around. But matching demographic statistics with vote counts paints a compelling picture.

There are nine ridings in Toronto that have Jewish populations greater than the Ontario average (although we shouldn’t exaggerate the Jewish vote: Thornhill, the riding with the most Jews, is only 36 per cent Jewish. Toronto Centre, which has the ninth-largest Jewish community, is only about 3 per cent Jewish. Ontario as a whole is about 1.7 per cent Jewish).

All those ridings were represented by Liberal MPs a decade ago, when the party held a near-electoral monopoly in Ontario. Even in 2004, when the Liberals were reduced to a minority, they easily held onto all those seats. In 2006, the Liberal Party lost Trinity-Spadina riding to the NDP and in 2008, it lost Thornhill to the Conservatives, but still held seven out of nine of the seats going into this month’s election.

Today, the Liberals only hold two of those nine seats. The Conservatives have six and the NDP still holds Trinity-Spadina. If you include three Ottawa-area ridings and one Hamilton-area riding, the Conservatives now represent nine of the 13 Ontario ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations. The NDP and the Liberals represent two ridings each in that category.

If you look at the vote in individual ridings over time, the pattern becomes even clearer. The Toronto riding of York Centre, which is about 24 per cent Jewish, used to be one of the safest Liberal seats in Canada. Former Liberal MP Art Eggleton won it with 71.1 per cent of the vote in the 2000 election. In the following election, Liberal Ken Dryden won it easily with almost 55 per cent of the vote, but his vote dropped over each subsequent election. In 2008, he hung onto the seat with only 43.46 per cent of the vote.

In 2011, Dryden didn’t even come close, losing the seat to Conservative Mark Adler, who won with 48.5 per cent of the vote compared to Dryden’s 33.3 per cent. The story of election-to-election decline is the same in all of the ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations, even the few in which the Liberals salvaged wins.  It’s also the same in other “ethnic” ridings.

If this voting pattern continues, the country could have a Conservative majority government for many more years to come.

No Virginia, There is No Toronto Bagel

2 Nov

I’ve worked as a journalist for a number of years now, so I’m used to a daily inundation of press releases from various sources, all of them hoping to get publicity for a cause, a product, or themselves.

I try to approach each of these press releases with journalistic objectivity and professional detachment. A decision on whether or not to follow up on any given press release should be strictly based on a judgement of its merits as a story.

But I can’t claim perfection. I have to admit that occasionally my own personal biases get in the way.

For instance, I received a press release the other day that got my blood boiling.

The release originated from a new bagel store “nestled in the heart of Toronto’s Jewish community”. The store was looking for publicity for its grand opening. Fair enough. But here’s how its text began:

“The Toronto bagel is not as well known as other types of bagels…”

They lost me right off the top. Right in those first three words:

The. Toronto. Bagel.

First rule of press releases: You can’t sell it if it doesn’t have at least a ring of truth to it.

Claiming there is such a thing as a Toronto bagel – however obscure – is like trying to claim there is such a thing as a North Bay smoked meat sandwich. Or an Iqaluit poutine. Or a Shawinigan deep dish pizza.

Everyone knows there are two – count ‘em two – kinds of bagels.

There is the New York bagel: Fluffy and soft and delicious.

And there is the Montreal bagel: Crunchy and sweet and delicious.

That’s it. Everything else is just a dinner roll with a hole in the middle.

Sorry Toronto.

The press release only got worse.

It contended there is a “secret technique and recipe of the Toronto braided bagel”. It even laid claim to a long “tradition” for this alleged product.

Finally, it offered “a sample bag of fresh bagels by overnight courier to reporters interested in enjoying this world treasure.”

I know you are thinking what I was thinking when I first read those words. No … not “free food!”

Rather: “What gall!”

Look, I’m willing to concede that Toronto has one or two good qualities.

There’s the formerly tallest free standing structure in the world.

There’s the replica of the Montreal Canadiens dressing room in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There’s the melt-in-your-mouth fried eggplant at the Jerusalem restaurant on Eglinton.

Some of my closest friends are from Toronto, even.

But … please. Spare me. The Toronto bagel? A world treasure?

First of all, the claim itself smacks of desperation. It’s the culinary equivalent of the classic defensive Torontonian claim of being a “world-class city”.

Second of all… well … did I mention there are only two kinds of bagels? And neither of them includes the word “Toronto” in its name.

The Toronto bagel? Next thing you know, Toronto will be claiming to have an NHL hockey team.