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September 19, 2011

Choice of wedge issues may backfire on Hudak

Geoffrey Stevens

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As the Ontario election heads into its second week, the issues are emerging. Health care (quality, availability and wait times), job creation, taxes, hydro rates, gasoline prices, and university tuitions are all pocketbook issues that resonate province-wide.

It is far from clear, however, which issue(s) will weigh heaviest in voters’ minds on Oct. 6. Unable to get much traction on big-ticket issues, the politicians are still scuffling in search of wedge issues — the classic being the faith-based school controversy that the Liberals used to destroy John Tory and the Progressive Conservatives in the 2007 Ontario election.

Tory’s replacement, Tim Hudak, thought he had a wedge issue with a Harper-like approach to law and order — including a proposal to put provincial prisoners to work on chain gangs. That idea fizzled before the election writ was issued.

Hudak then pounced on to Premier Dalton McGuinty’s proposal to provide tax credits of up to $10,000 to companies to hire “highly educated professionals” who have been trained abroad and are unable to find work in Ontario in such regulated fields as accounting, architecture or engineering.

Hudak accuses the Liberals of wanting to subsidize “foreign workers” at the expense of Ontario workers. But, wait, the people McGuinty is taking about are not imported “foreign workers.” They are trained people who came to Canada with skills Canada needs. They have become Canadian citizens but are unable find employment in their fields, either because their credentials are not recognized by Ontario regulatory bodies or because they lack job experience here.

We have all encountered foreign-trained professionals (doctors, researchers, or whatever) who are forced to work as taxi drivers or security guards to support their families. It’s a waste of human capital. Hudak’s ill-considered opposition to helping such people may play well among some old-line Conservatives, but it smacks more of opportunism and xenophobia than principled politics.

The opinion polls are not making the election any clearer. Support for all parties is soft. In the summer, it appeared as though the Conservatives were headed to at least a minority government with a lead in the 10-point range. That may — or may not — have changed last week with the publication of a new Harris Decima poll that put McGuinty’s Liberals ahead by a whopping 11 points, 40 per cent to 29 per cent for the Tories.

The new poll had a dramatic effect on a seat projection prepared by Professor Barry Kay for the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP). The projection changed from a minority Conservative government (52 Tories, 37 Liberals, 18 NDP in the 107-seat legislature) to minority Liberal (48 Liberals, 41 Conservatives and 18 NDP).

But is the Harris Decima poll correct? There is a suspicion among some insiders that it may be a “outlier” (a term the polling fraternity prefers to “rogue” to describe a poll that doesn’t fall within its margin of error).

There is much less polling in provincial elections than in federal ones. That may be a good thing, but it means it takes longer to identify and exclude outlier or rogue polls.

That makes a difference in an area like this. Of the five ridings in Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, three are currently Liberal and two Conservative. My usual rule of thumb is that a riding won by 5,000 or fewer votes is vulnerable to change. I suspect veteran Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer (4,900-vote margin in 2007) is probably safe in Kitchener-Waterloo, but Leeanna Pendergast, a rookie Liberal MPP who took Kitchener-Conestoga, by 1,865 votes, could be in for an uphill fight, especially if the earlier polls are correct.

Cambridge is anyone’s guess. Gerry Martiniuk, the long-serving Tory backbencher, who won by 3,228 votes in 2007, has retired, taking with him at least some of the advantage of incumbency. Liberal Kathryn McGarry, who ran strongly against Martiniuk last time, is trying to keep the seat away from Conservative newbie Rob Leone.

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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