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June 23, 2011

Ontario NDP has a long way to go

Geoffrey Stevens

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"There's no doubt that the energy (from) the federal election … has created a wind under our wings and has created excitement." - Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

What — if anything — do the May 2 federal election results portend for the Ontario provincial election on Oct. 6?

That question is much on the minds of politicians in all three provincial parties.

On May 2, Canadians voted for change in Ottawa, but they did schizophrenically. Some of the electorate voted to change the government from minority Conservative to majority Conservative, while others voted to change the official Opposition from Liberal to New Democrat.

In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals will be seeking a third consecutive majority government, and you would have to think the odds are against them. Third terms are the exception in Canadian politics. True, Jean Chrétien won a third consecutive majority in the 2000 federal election, but he was blessed with an opposition split into four fragments (Canadian Alliance, Bloc Québécois, NDP and Progressive Conservative).

McGuinty is not so blessed; he has to make do with just two opposition parties splitting the vote. His government appears tired and his personal popularity is in the dumpster; his approval-disapproval rating came in at a horrible 24-76 in one poll last month. His party is dispirited by the fate of their federal brethren, and some of his important members have decided to get out while the getting is good.

On the opposition side, Tim Hudak leads a party still nominally called “Progressive Conservative,” but he is much more a true Stephen Harper conservative than, say, a Bill Davis progressive conservative. Hudak is betting that the desire for change that propelled Harper to a majority will lift his provincial party to at least a minority government.

No one knows at this stage what Hudak and his Tories stand for, or how they would be different from the McGuinty Liberals. But maybe that doesn’t matter, yet. Hudak has the Harper campaign playbook and he is ripping it off, um, liberally — starting with the strategy of personal attack ads in the pre-writ period. Harper used his to paint Michael Ignatieff as a foreign interloper. Hudak is using his to portray McGuinty as “The Taxman,” who is out to steal, and waste, the savings of honest Ontarians. It’s not pretty, but it could be effective.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, as the quote above suggests, is looking to capitalize on momentum from the federal election. Certainly, the “orange surge” that carried Jack Layton’s federal NDP to official opposition status has energized the provincial party. There’s a new excitement, and NDP nominations that once went begging have become prizes worth fighting for.

But the Ontario NDP, mired in third place in a three-party system ever since the Bob Rae days, has a very long distance to go.

Here is an example close to home. With longtime PC backbencher Gerry Martiniuk not seeking re-election, Cambridge is an “open” seat. In theory, it is up for grabs.

The Liberals have renominated Kathryn McGarry, an intensive-care nurse who took 34 per cent of the vote in the 2007 election, about seven percentage points behind Martiniuk. In April (before the federal election), the Tories held their nominating convention. Six candidates vied to succeed Martiniuk; 635 votes were cast on the first ballot, and the battle went on for eight hours before Rob Leone, a political-science professor, won the nomination — by one vote.

The NDP held its convention earlier this month (after the orange surge). Two candidates contested the nomination, which was won by Atinuke Bankole, a teacher. A total of 44 votes were cast. That’s right, just 44.

Another point. The province has 106 federal seats. On May 2, the Conservatives gained 22 seats (to end with 73). The NDP added just five (for 22) — suggesting the orange surge did not deluge Ontario.

And, as Andrea Horwath notes, “You can’t take federal results and juxtapose them in Ontario.” She’s right about that.

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 geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

The KW Record, June 20, 2011.

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