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August 22, 2011

Ontario: Will Hudak hold advantage?

Geoffrey Stevens

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Labour Day is fast approaching, meaning the countdown to the Oct. 6 Ontario provincial election is about to begin. This is as good a time as any to take a peek ahead.

After eight years in power, the Liberals, led by Premier Dalton McGuinty, will be seeking a third term and, they hope, a third consecutive majority government — a feat not accomplished by any Ontario leader since Leslie Frost. (Bill Davis won four elections, but two of them produced minority governments.)

Don’t expect any surprises from the Liberal campaign. McGuinty will run on his record, such as it is, but with a deficit in the $16-billion range and provincial debt that has almost doubled during his tenure, he won’t be able to throw vast amounts of money at electors.

A year ago, I probably would have said the Liberals were doomed. The provincial economy had tanked. The government was mired in the eHealth scandal. The harmonized sales tax, introduced by McGuinty, was almost as unpopular in Ontario as in British Columbia, where the uproar cost former premier Gordon Campbell his job and where 1.6 million people cast ballots this summer in a mail-in referendum to rescind the HST (the results are expected in the next 10 days).

A poll last September reported that 71 per cent of Ontarians thought the province was on the wrong track and 76 per cent wanted a change of government. As recently as this May, McGuinty’s approval rating was just 24 per cent.

Polls in a pre-writ period are notoriously unreliable indicators, but there seems to have been some improvement in Liberal fortunes of late. The Progressive Conservatives’ lead over the Liberals may be shrinking; an Ipsos Reid poll last week asked Ontarians which leader would make the best premier — 38 per cent chose the Tories’ Tim Hudak, 33 per cent McGuinty and 24 per cent NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Not great numbers for the Liberals, but not as bad as they have been, or could be.

It may be that as the election approaches (and free of the distraction of the May 2 federal vote), Ontarians are looking beyond their unhappiness with the Liberal government and beginning to take the measure of the alternative.

They see Hudak as more of a Rob Ford/Mike Harris conservative than a Stephen Harper conservative. Harper may be no Red Tory, but the reality of power has caused him to moderate some of his right-wing positions. That hasn’t happened yet with Hudak.

Hudak will go into the campaign with one big advantage, people are tired of “Premier Dad.” Even some card-carrying Liberals think the charisma-free McGuinty has already gone to the well often enough. They would be content if his third trip produces a minority Liberal government with NDP support.

But Hudak also has a large potential disadvantage. Like Quebecers, Ontarians are most comfortable politically when they perform a balancing act with their federal and provincial governments — Liberals in Ottawa, Conservatives at Queen’s Park, and vice versa.

Conservative Brian Mulroney became prime minister in 1984; the next year, the Conservatives were driven out of Queen’s Park, replaced by David Peterson’s Liberals, then by Bob Rae’s New Democrats. Liberal Jean Chrétien won the federal election of 1993. In next Ontario election, in 1995, Harris and the Conservatives recaptured Queen’s Park.

Do Ontario voters really want two Harper governments — the real one in Ottawa and a mini-Harper administration of even deeper blue at Queen’s Park?

Some of Hudak’s policies make little sense, but he will presumably sort them out as the campaign gets going after Labour Day.

On law and order issues, Hudak seems bent on one-upping Harper. The prime minister just wants to build more prisons. He hasn’t embraced the full Hudak: Alabama-style chain gangs with prisoners from provincial institutions, supervised by armed guards, picking up trash along the highways, cleaning off graffiti, shovelling snow, and so on.

Or perhaps Harper hasn’t thought about chain gangs yet.

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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