Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberals got decisively whipped in yesterday’s provincial by-elections in Niagara Falls and Thornhill.
Their result in Thornhill, which was slightly stronger than their 2011 result in the same seat, showed Liberal support in the GTA is, at least, hanging in there under Wynne’s leadership. For a party to do that well in an opposition seat speaks well for Liberal fortunes in the Greater Toronto Area.
But, the results in Niagara Falls seem to confirm a disturbing trend the Grits have seen since the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election in 2012 (before Dalton McGuinty stepped down): a marked drop in Liberal support, particularly in southwestern and now south-central Ontario.
Liberal support went from 36% to 24% in Kitchener-Waterloo between 2011 and 2012. It disastrously collapsed in Windsor-Tecumseh from 43% in 2011 to just 10% in 2013, and from 46% in 2011 to just 15% in London West in 2013. The London by-election result was partially due to the dumb choice of a union turncoat as the candidate (Ken Coran). But the Windsor collapse was stunning, partially due to a weak candidate and an even weaker brand.
Now throw in Niagara Falls and the trend is clear. Although the Liberal vote didn’t collapse quite as disastrously: from 36% down to 19%. Still these levels of support – literally cut in half - will do nothing to encourage Liberals to get enthusiastic about their provincial party’s future in those areas.
Sure, these are by-elections, which are notoriously bad for incumbent governments. Would the Liberal results in these seats be better in a general election? Probably, which made me wonder last month why Wynne rushed to call these two by-elections in the first place.
With two fresh defeats, Wynne’s province-wide fundraising efforts could be negatively affected. So could candidate recruitment. If you’re a strong community leader considering running for Wynne’s Liberals in southern Ontario outside of the GTA, these by-elections will pour cold water on your hopes. Seats the Grits need to win back or pick up in order to win a new majority could become out of reach if the Grits can’t find decent candidates to run in them.
Since her election at the party convention in January 2013, Wynne’s performance has inspired and excited me as her fresh personality seemed to give new life to the Ontario Liberal brand, at least from my vantage point of downtown Toronto. All the good things I had heard about Wynne from others seemed to be true.
But then the by-election disasters started to pile up. And the bloom has come off Wynne’s leadership and government, which spent most of 2013 simply examining issues through expert panels instead of setting the agenda with new policies and communicating an inspiring message of hope and economic recovery.
What is the Wynne plan for the province? It remains vague. There has been talk about the economy and jobs of late, but anything resembling a compelling and inspiring plan has yet to emerge from the Ontario Liberal policy brain trust.
Last night’s results make clear that voters continue to have grave doubts about PC Leader Tim Hudak. After losing a seat in Kitchener-Waterloo in 2012, the petulant man-boy accused voters of being “bought off” by so-called union bosses, a bizarre contradiction in terms as all union leaders are elected by their members. Hudak’s vilification of unions continues as he refuses to give up his made-in-the-USA “right to work for less” policy, which would drive down wages and benefits for workers right across the province.
This heartless, hopeless policy agenda, coupled with Hudak’s own inability to inspire confidence in his leadership, is holding the Ontario PCs back. If his party were marching toward victory after 11 years of Liberal rule, it would’ve held its Kitchener-Waterloo seat in 2012, won the London West by-election last year, and picked up Niagara Falls last night. Instead, voters, unhappy with the Grits, are instead parking their votes with the light-on-policy NDP.
“This is all about the union elite who are running the show,” he said today of the Niagara Falls result. No, Tim, voters are simply turned off by you.
The NDP has shown amazing ability to win over by-election voters in urban areas outside the GTA since the 2011 election. But we’ve seen this movie before. The Ontario NDP also won a string of by-elections between 2003 and 2007, but fell flat on its face in the general election in 2007 when voters again polarized between the Grits and John Tory’s PCs. One of those NDP by-election pickups reverted back to the Liberals in York South-Weston.
Voters can indulge in voting NDP in by-elections when they’re not happy with the other options. But what will those voters do in a general election? Will Andrea Horwath be able to carry all urban seats outside the GTA in a provincial election? Are we about to elect a NDP government in Ontario in 2014? Despite these by-election victories, it doesn’t seem so to me.
With voters’ doubts about Tim Hudak now seemingly cemented, it does open up an opportunity for Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals to recover and win again. But first, they need to do better to inspire Ontarians and earn back our confidence.
The by-election results plainly expose the massive challenges Wynne faces if she is going to win the next election. An inspiring policy agenda, coupled with Wynne’s strong leadership skills and personality, might be able to stem off her opponents and earn the Liberals another mandate.