Don’t do that again: Paul Wells on the Ontario election fallout

Both the PQ and the Progressive Conservatives bet early on big, bold platforms—so much for that idea

<p>Ontario Premier and Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne, centre, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, left, and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak take part in the Ontario provincial leaders debate in Toronto, Tuesday June 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/POOL-Mark Blinch</p>

Ontario Premier and Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne, centre, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, left, and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak take part in the Ontario provincial leaders debate in Toronto, Tuesday June 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/POOL-Mark Blinch


What will haunt election planners for a long time to come is the thought that in Canada’s two largest provinces in 2014, the losing party ruined its own chances early, all by itself. Both times, it thought it was doing something clever.

In Quebec in March, five days after then-premier Pauline Marois called an election, she announced the candidacy of the most prominent recruit the Parti Québécois had landed in ages, media tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau. It was supposed to be proof of the PQ’s clout. But Péladeau pumped his fist as he talked about a sovereign Quebec, and suddenly the election turned into a referendum on PQ doctrine instead of on Liberal corruption. The PQ never recovered.

Fast forward to Barrie, north of Toronto, in May, a week after the Ontario election began. Tim Hudak, the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, needed a few things to break his way if he was to avoid a second consecutive defeat at the hands of the Liberals. He needed to avoid improvised comments that would throw him off message. And he needed to motivate Conservative voters to get out and vote, by showing them he was one of them. His remarks in Barrie were superbly rehearsed. To unleash private investment, he would cut 100,000 public sector jobs.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “I take no joy in this. But it has to be done if we want job creators to put more people on the payroll in our province.”

A month later, on June 12, the Liberals won a fourth consecutive election in a province where Progressive Conservatives once held power for decades on end. Under rookie Premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals’ share of the popular vote actually went up, as did Andrea Horwath’s third-place New Democrats’. Only the Hudak Conservatives lost vote share.

Paul Wells: Why Wynne’s win is historic 

Gallery: We sent a sketch artist to cover the political circus

Video: What the party leaders had to say after the votes had been counted 

At their first caucus meeting after the defeat, Conservative MPPs were near-unanimous in calling the 100,000-job cut the campaign’s turning point. One, Todd Smith, called the announcement “brutal” and “devastating.” Several said they had no advance warning of Hudak’s promise. A senior Liberal campaign strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed with that diagnosis.

Both the Liberals and Conservatives had an interest in a polarized election, with each coveting Horwath’s NDP vote. Each had a reasonable shot at it. If your main goal was to get rid of the Liberals, you might be open to voting either NDP or Conservative. (Ideologues on the left and right have a hard time imagining such an exotic creature as a Conservative-NDP switcher, but they’re not that rare. A lot of people aren’t ideologues.) And if your main goal was to stave off government cuts, you might consider either Liberals or New Democrats a reasonable vehicle.

The question when the campaign began, the Liberal strategist said, was which of the Liberals or Conservatives would become the bigger target. Hudak answered the question in Barrie.

“We knew that Tim would want to polarize the vote,” the strategist said. “Did we ever dream that he’d be dumb enough to come out with the 100,000 jobs and be that obvious? Nope.”

Six days after Hudak’s Barrie speech, Wynne toured the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, which didn’t yet exist when an E. coli outbreak in the town’s water supply killed seven people in 2000. That visit was not part of the original campaign itinerary, the Liberal strategist said. Getting Wynne to Walkerton after Hudak’s announcement “was no small strategic decision,” he said. “That was all about sending the message that cuts have consequences.”

To some extent, Wynne’s entire tenure as premier has been about arguing that cuts have consequences. That’s what makes her re-election significant beyond questions of electoral tactics: since she replaced Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader 16 months ago, she has reinforced Ontario Liberals’ activist streak despite an increasingly worrisome fiscal climate.

That climate was described, at McGuinty’s request, in a 2012 report by economist Don Drummond. It said Ontario’s shrinking industrial base couldn’t afford government spending at the pace the McGuinty Liberals had set, and called for “a wrenching reduction from the path that spending is now on.” He didn’t pretend it would be easy: “The government will have to cut program spending more deeply on a real per capita basis and over a much longer period of time than the [Mike] Harris government did in the 1990s.”

McGuinty took at least parts of the Drummond report—which, after all, he had commissioned—to heart. His finance minister at the time, Dwight Duncan, delivered a 2012 budget that carried the title “Strong action for Ontario,” with a speech that began, “Everything we continue to do must be done more efficiently and even more effectively. All of us in this legislature, and all Ontarians, must turn our attention first to balancing the budget.”

Then McGuinty retired while the cost to taxpayers of abruptly cancelled gas-plant construction contracts mounted. Wynne won the Liberal leadership and lost no time turning away from McGuinty’s discourse of relative austerity. In 2013 a new finance minister, Charles Sousa, delivered a budget whose title was “A prosperous and fair Ontario,” with altogether cheerier rhetoric. “We must build our economy and prepare our workforce for the future by supporting one another today,” Sousa said. “We reject across-the-board cuts.”

Those instincts defined the second Wynne-Sousa budget a year later, the one the minority Liberal government fell on, forcing this election. Now that they’ve been returned with a stronger mandate and a majority in the provincial parliament, they’ll implement Wynne’s plan for higher taxes and fees, a plan that makes a return to fiscal surplus less of a sure thing than if McGuinty had stuck around, never mind if Hudak had won the election.

Jonathon Gatehouse spoke to Wynne earlier this week. Listen to this interview here:

Wynne’s bet is that smart investment can grow Ontario out of straitened circumstances. Don Drummond was categorical: that can’t be done. “Ontario cannot count on a resumption of its historical strong growth rates,” he wrote in his report. The Liberals have four years to demonstrate that Drummond was wrong, or that Ontarians won’t mind if he was right. It’s a tall order, but Wynne volunteered for the job.

How will her government get along with Stephen Harper’s? As well as any ever has. Harper called for two successive Ontario Conservative leaders, John Tory and Hudak, to defeat Liberal incumbents. Neither succeeded. He’s stuck with Liberals, as Jean Chrétien was stuck after 1995 with Mike Harris’s Conservatives, as Pierre Trudeau and Bill Davis were stuck with each other. The glory of a federation is that governments that can barely stand the thought of each other must work to improve life for the same citizens.

As for guessing the implications of Wynne’s victory for Harper’s political future, that’s a mug’s game if ever there was one. Harper won more than 44 per cent of the popular vote in Ontario in 2011. It didn’t stop the provincial Liberals from winning two elections since then. Why would Wynne’s victory have decisive influence in the other direction? Every government has to win its own elections on its own terms. But leaders are advised to avoid making any sudden moves in a campaign’s first week.