Searching for Common Sense in the Ontario election results

By: on June 23, 2014 |

Well, that was close. On June 12 Ontario voters narrowly avoided sending their province back to the stone age.

We know this thanks to a massive wave of advertising from nurses, teachers, police and numerous other public sector unions that promised universal ruin and devastation if Progressive Conservative party leader Tim Hudak won. No bus shelter, billboard, television station or community newspaper was spared the dark tidings. There were so many ads on local radio that entire commercial breaks consisted of back-to-back-to-back anti-Hudak warnings. (At one point my superhero-loving son asked: ‘If Hudak wins, will Krypton explode?’ It’s a Superman reference.)

It all proved sufficiently convincing for Ontario voters to hand Liberal Kathleen Wynne a surprising Liberal majority. But what else does it prove?

Hudak’s defeat has been widely interpreted as a repudiation of fiscally conservative policies in Ontario, since his platform promised large cuts to the public sector payroll, a balanced budget in two years and tax cuts once the job was done. Others have speculated the results spell doom for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan for another majority in 2015, since central Canada has so clearly rejected the conservative brand.

Like the union ads, such talk seems wildly overdone. There’s plenty to be learned from the outcome of the Ontario election, but the death of conservatism is not one of those things.

Clearly the growing power of labour unions in Ontario politics has become a major concern. Nineteen different unions were directly involved in election advertising. And many more unions − from backstage theatre workers to newspaper journalists − sent their members messages warning against voting for Hudak.

Most troubling of all was the role of the Ontario Provincial Police Association. The police union grimly hinted that Hudak posed a threat to public safety, thus necessitating their unprecedented entrance into partisan politics. Of course what they really meant was Hudak posed a threat to their sweet-heart wage deal cooked up by Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, who bought labour peace from the OPPA three years ago by trading two years of zero percent increases for a promise they’d be the highest paid cops in the province in 2014 − what now necessitates an unconscionable 8.5 percent pay hike. Most other public sector unions no doubt expect similar deals as payback for delivering the election to Wynne’s Liberals.

With no limits on third-party advertising in Ontario elections, future campaigns will continue to be dominated by union ad spending, enabled by mandatory dues, unless the rest of the political universe mobilizes to an equivalent degree.

Whatever the role of unions in influencing the election, there’s no question Ontario’s finances are rapidly approaching dire straits. The deficit, currently $12.5 billion, is still rising. Debt payments are $11 billion a year. And Wynne’s successful platform, while promising a balanced budget by 2017-18, contained plenty of new spending − from $29 billion for transit to $2.5 billion in handouts for business − as well as a job-killing provincial pension plan.

So is the success of Wynne’s unicorns and rainbows platform a sign Ontario voters have permanently given up on financial reality? Not necessarily.

The other significant take-away from Hudak’s loss is not the death of fiscal conservatism, but the observation that tough medicine doesn’t sell itself. It requires a coherent message, an appealing messenger and a sense of urgency. Keep in mind this is the same province that gave Mike Harris two consecutive majorities in the 1990s.

In fact Harris’ winning 1995 Common Sense Revolution is quite similar to Hudak’s failed Million Jobs Plan. Both were polarizing documents with more than the usual amount of campaign platform detail. Both promised tax cuts and a balanced budget. And both focused on jobs cuts for a bloated civil service. The defining issue of this year’s Conservative campaign proved to be Hudak’s vow to cut 100,000 public sector positions out of a total payroll of 1.1 million: a reduction of about nine percent. In 1995 Harris promised to cut the civil service by 15 percent. Similar cuts, different outcomes.

Significantly, Harris proposed cutting 13,000 jobs out of a total provincial work force of around 90,000, located mainly in Toronto. Hudak’s target of 100,000 out of 1.1 million workers included a much wider range of employees, including those in municipalities and crown corporations in every corner of the province. It’s an important distinction.

In casting his net so wide, Hudak made the task of selling the job cuts much more difficult. If 1.1 million voters think they face a one-in-ten chance they’ll lose their job if Hudak wins, they instantly become motivated voters. And keep in mind the Liberals won a majority with only 1.8 million votes. “It doesn’t make sense to agitate such a large portion of the voting public. says Peter Woolstencroft, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo with a long track record in provincial and federal conservative campaigns in southwestern Ontario.

Woolstencroft argues the messenger also played a crucial role in the divergent outcomes of 1995 and 2014. While Harris cut a genial and media-friendly figure for voters, “Hudak has an inability to smile comfortably,” he says. “He’s one of the worst smilers ever.”

Beyond any image failure on Hudak’s part, there’s also the issue of urgency. In 1995 Ontarians had endured five years of chaotic, tax-hiking NDP government under Premier Bob Rae and were upset about it. While on paper, the financial circumstances facing Ontario are worse today than they were in 1995 − particularly with respect to the structural deficit − these problems have not yet catalyzed into open discomfort for most taxpayers.

“In 1995 bad things were already happening. Voters were angry at Rae and wanted change. This time around there were just scared [by the union barrage about Hudak’s job cuts]. There’s a big difference,” says Woolstencroft.

Yet none of the above suggests a coherent and well-run conservative campaign can’t win in Ontario in the next election.

Wynne will soon find herself caught between her promise to balance the budget and the insatiable demands of the unions that put her back in power. And if she can’t pull off this impossible task, she’ll end up like Rae in 1995: loathed by both taxpayers and unions.

At which time a credible and well-crafted plan, not to mention a messenger with an easy smile, could be just the thing to deliver fiscal sanity back to Canada’s biggest province.

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.

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About Peter Shawn Taylor

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He travelled to Budapest as a guest of the Friends of Hungary Foundation; the organization had no control over the resulting story.

2 thoughts on “Searching for Common Sense in the Ontario election results”

  1. The Billster says:

    While certainly there are conservatives left in Ontario, one hopes that most of them will uproot and join us in western Canada, and abandon the majority who have elected and re-elected the spendthrift Liberals since 2003; recently with a resounding majority.

    I truly hope to see the remaining Ontarians reap the consequences of their votes: bankruptcy, continued corruption, higher taxes, and crushing unemployment. Why? Because they deserve it.

    Already a ‘have-not’ province that can’t or won’t support themselves, I wish upon them all the costs and results that will come from their preference for welfare statism, the economic dominance of unions, an engorged government and crushing debt and taxes. Let ’em burn.

    Bill Donaldson
    Victoria BC

  2. David Murrell says:

    Good essay, one of hope, from Peter Shawn Taylor. He does touch on two key factors (heavy union spending and Tim Hudal’s poor TV image) that led to the PC defeat. And although I agree that a positive fiscal platform can be sold to Ontarioans, there are other critical problems that must be addressed to fight a good fight against the Kathleen Wynne juggernaut:

    1. a one-sided pro-Liberal bias. The elehphant in the room, whcih few conservatives discuss, is that the major national media, all based in Toronto, gave Kathleen Wynne (and Dalton McGuinty before her) a free ride. Whereas the pro-Liberal Globe and Mail and CBC News did fine investigative reporting uncovering the Rob Ford scandals (he’s a fiscal conservative), these media giants, as a matter of biased editorial policy, refused to do any investigative spade work against current and past Ontario Liberal governments. The Toronto Star, well, is the Toronto Star, a pro-Liberal house organ. While the Sun News media has continued to attack the Ontario Liberal government, their audience-reach is frankly too small to matter. And the same holds true with the National Post. Kathleen Wynne’s victory, in this context, is similar to Omaba’s viory in 2012: the vast majority of Canada’s corporate media support the Ontario Liberals.

    2. Closely related to point #1 is the lack of investigative reporting (and research) by small-c conservatives. The Sun newspapers try, but the tabloid nature of the newspapers, and thin investigative-research budgets, prevents any meaningful publication of in-depth stories.

    One anecdote: during the campaign I decided (for the first time) to research Elections Ontario files as to contributions to the Ontario Liberal Party, and to give useful data (e.g., the Ontario Provincial Police Association) to sympathetic journalists. I was surprised to find out that no conservative journalist had bothered to research polical contributions to the Liberals by anybody — this even given the long list of scandals, cronyisn and the like going on in the McGuinty-Wynne governments. Research is needed to go after the well-moneyed unions, as well. The list of questionable and sleazy dealings within the Ontario government is long, yet there is little research — and publication of findings — underway.

    As a young researcher decades ago, I was impressed with Stevie Cameron’s book, “On the Take: Crime, Greed and Corruption in the Mulroney Years”. Ms. Cameron (a Liberal) kept files, did careful research work — something conservatives do not do. Ontario conservatives need their own Stevie Cameron, given the greed and corruption within the Ontario Liberal government.

    3. Finally, Mr. Taylor complains about the huge spending by unions against Tim Hudak. But where was the conservative ad spending.? In the United States, they have fairly big, well-organized grassroots groups advocating for smaller governnment, and spending big money on election ads. But why not here? What is the size, and spending, of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives? Do they have any energy and financial clout, these days? It is easy to talk about pro-fiscal conservatism — but what about grassroots advocacy?
    I think these three points have to be addressed, for a conservative resurgence in Ontario, and elsewhere.
    — David Murrell
    Economics, UNB at Fredericton

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