As the 2015 federal election campaign enters the home stretch, the Ontario storyline is the national narrative: Conservatives and Liberals vying for the lead, and the New Democrats running a close third. “In most elections, Ontario follows the national campaign,” says Michele Austin, a Tory insider and Senior Advisor at Summa Strategies. “In 2015, Ontario is the national campaign.”
Ontario has 121 ridings, 15 more than in 2011 when the Conservatives won 73 seats with 44 percent of the popular vote, the NDP won 22 with 26 percent of the vote, and the Liberals won 11 with 25 percent of the vote.
Again this year the Conservatives are competitive across the province except in downtown Toronto. The Tories are safest in their rural and exurban ridings across eastern, central and southwestern Ontario. They are also defending 30 seats in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), which is mostly a traditional Liberal stronghold that evolved from reliably red to basically blue between 2006 and 2011.
Liberals are looking for a rebound this year. At the end of September, most polls put both the Tories and Liberals in the mid-30s, a big shift from the 19-point spread in 2011. If the numbers hold, the election could return dozens of seats to the Liberals, mainly in the swing ridings of the GTA.
The NDP is still waiting for the Orange Wave to roll across the Ottawa River. The party has been stuck in the mid-20s for most of the Ontario campaign. That should allow it to keep its clusters of seats in urban centres and northern Ontario, but if there’s going to be an NDP breakthrough, it will likely appear in the southwest and Brampton, two nodes of recent provincial party strength.
The Ontario battleground resembles trench warfare, a stalemate where the NDP has not caught a wave, the Liberals have not fully united the anybody-but-Conservative vote, and the Tories have not recaptured the ground lost since 2011.
Bob Rae haunts the NDP still
There is some evidence that the NDP campaign in Ontario is better organized than it ever has been. New Democrats are powerfully motivated by their abhorrence of Stephen Harper’s government and the possibility of a national victory for the first time ever.
Even some Conservatives admiringly acknowledge a ‘stepped up’ NDP campaign combining greater ethnic outreach, a better ground game and a smarter media buy. NDP lawn signs are appearing in parts of the province, according to Austin, “where we haven’t seen them before.” Geoff Owen, Vice-President at Hill & Knowlton says of the federal NDP’s strategy in Ontario that “they have one, which differentiates them from their provincial counterparts in 2014.”
Downtown Toronto is still an NDP bastion. Their incumbents appear safe, and they may gain a couple more urban seats at the expense of high-profile Liberal MPs Adam Vaughan (Fort York-Spadina) and Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale).
Yet there is still no sign of a major NDP breakthrough, which must remind partisans of the 2014 provincial election, when Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals won a surprise majority by tacking to the left and aggressively contrasting with the PC’s austerity platform. The Liberals routed the NDP in Toronto and overwhelmed the PCs in the suburban 905 region.
This fall is the 25th anniversary of Bob Rae’s victory, the only election where the NDP ever won the most seats in Ontario. Until New Democrats win again, it’s a fair assumption that the ghost of the Rae government still haunts the NDP brand, which may explain leader Thomas Mulcair’s strenuous efforts to present a fiscally centrist program promising balanced budgets.
Federal Liberals are hoping for a repeat of 2014 when “a centre-left Liberal agenda defeated a play-it-safe NDP agenda,” according to Charles Bird, an active Liberal strategist and Principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group.
If Trudeau fails to reconstitute the Wynne coalition, it will not be for lack of left-leaning policy. His commitments to deficit spending for infrastructure, tax hikes on higher income earners, and greater retirement income security, all mirror Wynne government policies.
For Trudeau, the challenge in converting Ontario’s urban elites may have more to do with personality than policy. “Kathleen Wynne is authentically downtown Toronto – Justin isn’t,” says Geoff Owen.
Harper vs Wynne (and Trudeau)
But the main event in Ontario is between the Conservatives and the Liberals in the suburbs. From their many joint campaign appearances, it’s clear the Liberals think the Wynne-Trudeau combination is a winner. She kicked off the campaign by endorsing a change in Ottawa that would bring forward “policies that make sense for the people of Ontario.”
She also attacked Harper on infrastructure spending: “If we had Stephen Harper as the prime minister when Canada needed a national railroad or a health care system or the CPP or the (St. Lawrence) Seaway, where would we be as a nation?” Furthermore, the prime minister’s unequivocal rejection of her planned Ontario Retirement Pension Plan was, she said, “mean-spirited in a pretty big way.”
The Wynne-Trudeau alliance runs deep. Many of Trudeau’s key staff worked at Queen’s Park in the McGuinty and Wynne governments. High-profile Liberals, including pollster David Herle and former Prime Minister Paul Martin, have been associated with both Wynne and Trudeau. According to Chris Collenette, a Liberal insider and Senior Associate at Hill & Knowlton, “All Liberals are engaged. Period. Everyone is pumping for Justin.” Federal Liberals undoubtedly benefit from sharing volunteers, organization and voter identification tools with their provincial cousins.
The Conservatives appear equally comfortable making Kathleen Wynne a focus of their campaign. Early on, Harper zeroed in on the four in 10 Ontarians who are not part of the progressive coalition and promised to protect them from new payroll taxes attached to Wynne’s pension scheme. “The Conservative government is not going to help bring in that kind of tax,” he said. “I find it appalling that people who have demonstrated they cannot run the finances of the government think they are going to better run our own retirement finances for us.”
Picking fights with provincial premiers is an unconventional federal election strategy. But Harper has also criticized Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and her new NDP government for allegedly making that province’s energy sector recession “much, much worse.” The Tories have evidently calculated they can help defeat their federal opponents by highlighting the real (or invented) shortcomings of their provincial cousins.
The Wynne government’s popularity has been trending downward since the June 2014 provincial election. Among its burdens is a controversial new sex-ed curriculum that triggered a backlash among some new Canadians, a key Tory constituency. A move to privatize electricity distribution has not gone smoothly, and elementary teachers are threatening to start rotating strikes this month. If the latter happens, the Liberal brand could be facing both angry teachers and frustrated parents on election day. As one Conservative insider observes, “Wynne has a lot of enemies right now.”
The centre of Canada’s political universe
At the end of the day, the battle for Ontario – and perhaps for Canada – will be won or lost in the GTA. It includes 25 ridings in Toronto (up three from 2011), and 29 ridings in the 905 belt (up seven from 2011).
According to the Hill Times, 23 of the GTA’s ridings have visible minority populations of more than 50 percent. These ridings will test each party’s appeal to new Canadians and, perhaps, the strength of the provincial sex-ed imbroglio as a ballot-box issue.
To preserve the nine seats they won in Toronto (ending a drought that dated back to 1988) and the 21 seats they won in 905 back in 2011, the Conservatives need to mobilize a solid turnout of their 30 percent base, and win back the swing voters who deserted them over the last four years. They stand a reasonable chance of doing so according to the latest polls, including a September 25-28 Ipsos-Reid survey for Global News which put the Tories at 43 percent in the 905, seven points ahead of the Liberals and 22 ahead of the NDP.
However, at this writing, Conservative upward mobility was still inhibited by the powerful demand for change sought by some two-thirds of Ontarians in poll after poll. For many of those voters, the primary calculus is whether the Liberals or New Democrats represent the best choice for change.
But with 15 new seats and 11 retiring incumbents, plus defeated incumbents, Ontarians will see a lot of change no matter how they vote. Notes Michele Austin, “Election 2015 will be a generational change for Ontario’s representation in Ottawa.”
In all likelihood, the Ontario race will go to the wire. If one of the opposition parties was going to break out of the deadlock, historical campaign patterns suggest it should have happened by now. Those patterns ought to favour the Conservatives, who have seen modest late-campaign surges of support before from so-called “shy Tories”, who don’t put up lawn signs or tell pollsters how they’re going to vote.
History favours the Conservatives in another way too. Since the late 1950s, Ontarians have reliably alternated their federal and provincial support between progressive and conservative options. With the Liberals in charge at Queen’s Park, the Conservatives might get to hold Ottawa.
And there’s one more positive augury for the Tories: in October, everyone in Ontario will be cheering for the Blue team.
Leif Malling is a Toronto-based management consultant and co-founder of Blue Skies Ontario.