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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