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August 15, 2012

A time of uncertainty in Ontario, Quebec

Geoffrey Stevens

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Whenever federal and provincial heads of government gather, the seating at the head of the table is the same. The prime minister sits in the centre with the premier of Ontario on his right and the premier of Quebec on his left.

It’s pure symbolism, recognition that Ontario and Quebec are the senior partners in Confederation (apologies to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) and that they were, and remain, the cornerstone provinces. Some of Ontario’s prosperity has moved west, from the manufacturing centres of southern Ontario to the oilsands of Alberta, but province is still the financial heart of the country. Quebec always punches above its weight in terms of political influence, and that influence endures over time even as the forces of separatism wax and wane.

Historically, Ontario and Quebec have stood together in times of national stress, and when national unity has been at stake, Ottawa has generally been able to look to the two big provinces for support.

Political uncertainty — even instability — in the cornerstone provinces makes 2012 an especially interesting year. In Quebec, Premier Jean Charest is in deep trouble, but he is one of the great campaigners of his time, and he has rolled the dice on a Sept. 4 election. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty, reduced to a minority in last year’s election, is struggling to keep his head above water. He may be forced into another election later this year — and no one would ever accuse McGuinty of being a great campaigner.

First, Quebec. Like McGuinty, Charest is a Liberal. At dissolution, he held a slender majority with 64 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly. But student protests, allegations of corruption in the construction industry and political system, plus simple electoral ennui — he has been premier for nine years already and is seeking a fourth consecutive mandate — have eroded his support.

A few months ago, Charest and the Liberals seemed doomed, but recent polls reflect a modest revival, putting them within a point or two of the Parti Québécois. A minority government seems likely, but whether it will be Liberal or PQ may depend on the third party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) with its star candidate, the corruption fighter and former Montreal police chief, Jacques Duchesneau.

The principal parties have staked out their core messages. PQ leader Pauline Marois stands for change and against corruption. Charest stands for continuity in the face of chaos. It remains to be seen if the CAQ, with Duchesneau’s focus on corruption, will take votes from the Liberals, or if it will split the anti-corruption vote, thereby helping the Liberals by stealing votes from the PQ. My hunch is the latter, but it’s just that: a hunch.

Now, Ontario. Like Charest, McGuinty has been premier for nine long years; he’s on his third term. He has been unable to reboot his government since he lost his majority in the October 2011 election. The Ornge ambulance scandal, like the eHealth spending fiasco before it, is more than a distraction. It calls into serious question the Liberals’ ability to manage public funds.

According to polls, the Liberals have lost support (perhaps as many as 10 points) since the election and now trail the opposition Progressive Conservatives. Some polls put them in third place, just behind the New Democrats.

The Liberals currently hold 52 seats in the 107-seat Ontario Legislature. There are two vacancies awaiting byelection calls: in Kitchener-Waterloo, a Tory seat (Elizabeth Witmer) and in Vaughan, which had been held by a Liberal star, Greg Sorbara. If McGuinty could win both seats, he would have 54, enough for a bare majority. But Kitchener-Waterloo will be particularly difficult and, with the popular Sorbara gone, Vaughan will be no stroll in the park.

The possibility of losing both seats is real. If that happens, the opposition parties will be out for serious blood, and McGuinty will be lucky to make it to the end of the year.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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