Long-time readers of TACTIX’ Commentaries will be familiar with our coverage of federal election campaigns over the years, with our popular Campaign Pulse. This spring, we find the Ontario provincial election campaign to be so fascinating, with important implications for our Queen’s Park clients, that we have decided to offer our thoughts and observations as voting day in Ontario inches ever closer.
“What Kind of Change Do You Want?” is the Ballot Question
Ontarians who have tuned into the June 7th provincial election have been ‘kicking the tires’ of two political parties for the past few weeks of the campaign. The Liberals, in power for the past 15 years, are a well-known commodity – no tire kicking required.
But, what about the two other main parties seeking to govern Ontario: the Progressive Conservatives, led by newcomer Doug Ford, and the New Democratic Party, being led for the third consecutive provincial election by Andrea Horwath? There has been much kicking of their respective tires, with some surprising twists and turns as a result.
The PCs entered the campaign with a significant lead in public opinion polls over Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, a government with which many Ontarians have been disenchanted for some time. Ontario’s NDP occupied their usual place in public opinion – a solid third. Over the first few weeks of the election campaign, however, the PC’s commanding lead dissipated, with Liberal support bleeding to the NDP.
The result of tire kicking in recent days has led to what appears to be a neck-and-neck “time for a change” race between the PCs and the NDP. The final week of the campaign will be key for both parties as voters who have not been paying close attention finally decide where to mark X on their ballot. The question at the very core of this election is what kind of change do voters want?
Lessons to be Learned: Observations on Ontario Elections Past
We are not in the election prediction business. That is a mug’s game, as anyone who has followed U.S. and U.K politics in recent years knows all too well. We do, however, look at historical election data, seeking patterns and making observations that keen election-watchers may find of interest.
For the purposes of this Commentary, we have taken a look back over the past 33 years of Ontario elections, nine in all, beginning with the seminal election of 1985. We say seminal because that was the election ending 42 consecutive years of Progressive Conservative governments in Ontario. Ever since, Ontario has been a legitimate three-party race province, with all three major Ontario political parties winning majority governments.
Observation 1: Ontario voters strongly prefer majority governments. Seven of the past nine elections have resulted in majorities.
Observation 2: When faced with a highly unpopular government (David Peterson’s Liberals in 1990; Bob Rae’s NDP in 1995; Mike Harris’ PCs in 2003), Ontarians tend to coalesce around the one party they believe has the best chance of defeating the incumbent, rewarding that party with a majority government.
Observation 3: Majority governments can be formed in Ontario with very low popular vote results. Bob Rae became Ontario’s first NDP Premier by securing only 37.6 per cent of the popular vote. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals received one-tenth of one per cent more popular vote – 37.7 per cent – and formed a majority government following the 2011 election.
Pathways to Victory – A Party by Party Synopsis
Doug Ford’s PCs start off with a solid and loyal rural base of seats from which to grow into election day. Growth will have to come from making inroads in the City of Toronto – so-called Ford Nation – and in the 905 beltway around Toronto. The PCs can also benefit in some ridings where the so-called “anyone-but-Ford” vote is split between the Liberals and the NDP, with the PCs coming up the middle.
With an uptick in support since the election writ was issued, the NDP need to have the “anyone-but-Ford” vote coalesce securely around them, at the expense of Premier Wynne’s Liberals. Like the PCs, they also need to cut into the Liberal’s “Fortress Toronto”, win in Northern Ontario, and capture a fair share of urban seats throughout the province, but particularly in the southwest. Not an issue for millennial voters, but perhaps for some in the baby boomer generation, they may also need to vanquish their version of Banquo’s Ghost – also known as Bob Rae’s NDP government of 1990-95.
The depth of Premier Wynne’s personal unpopularity, as well as of the party she leads, appears so great that the Liberal’s path to victory requires something just short of a miracle. Doug Ford will need to alienate scores upon scores of voters and Ontarians’ recollections of the Rae government will have to be so vividly horrifying that the “anyone-but-Ford” vote coalesces resoundingly around the Liberals. Should this election go as badly for the Liberals as the opinion polls are suggesting, there is one scenario offering at least a tiny shred of hope.
A Brief Look Back in Time: Remember 1985!
Some of us have been around Ontario politics long enough to recall the astonishing turn of events following the election held on May 2, 1985. As a brief reminder, we offer this glimpse back at Ontario election history:
Frank Miller’s PCs won the most seats that day–52 out of a possible 125–but not enough to form a majority government. A thunderous shake-up of Ontario politics was about to unfold in the coming days. Liberal leader David Peterson, whose party won 48 seats, signed an historic Accord with the NDP’s Bob Rae, the winner of 25 seats.
The Accord provided for the NDP to introduce a motion of non-confidence in Miller’s PC government and NDP support for a Liberal government, in exchange for the Liberal’s agreeing to enact several NDP priorities and to not trigger an election for two years. Thus did 42 consecutive years of PC government end in Ontario.
Should Doug Ford’s PCs win the most seats on June 7th, but not a sufficient number to form a majority government, might we see history repeat itself, albeit with the Liberals and NDP reversing their respective roles? Therein may lie the incumbent Liberal’s tiny shred of hope in an election that is all about change–holding the balance of power in a minority parliament.
As the tire kicking of prospective governments comes to an end, like all political junkies, we await with eagerness the results of Ontario’s election on Thursday, June 7th, whatever that result may be. Change is in the offing. The key question to be answered by Ontario voters is what type of change do they want?
— the TACTIX Team