Saturday, June 9, 2018

If the Ontario NDP couldn't win this year, I'm not sure they can ever win...

Ontario political map after Thursday night.
Oh, what a gross election in Ontario.   I'm still digesting what happened Thursday but I do want to share some thoughts.

Healthy democracies consist of at least two competitive parties capable of winning and forming government.  And usually the Canadian public is wise enough to kick the bums out after eight or so years, sooner if the government has been particularly disastrous.

But when one party governs for so long due to the incompetence of its opposition, say 15 years, this causes a massive build-up of fatigue and anger over scandals and mistakes that become too numerous to count.

So when a well-meaning female leader with a great personality but perhaps not perfect political judgment (who indeed has such perfect judgment?) comes along and keeps that party in power longer after 11 years, as Wynne did in 2014, it creates the scenario we saw play out this week.

In 2014, Wynne seemed like a genuine breath of fresh air, a true progressive who had achieved a miracle by convincing the majority of Ontario Liberal delegates to elect her leader.  Her agenda was bold and inspiring, a practical progressive platform I was excited about.  Plus Tim Hudak was a dolt with a plan Ontario voters knew couldn't work.  (Sadly, 41% of Ontario voters had to know the same thing about Doug Ford's "plan" this year, but didn't care as they had less confidence in both the Liberals or the NDP.)

But then the realities of government took hold and Wynne started making a few mistakes.  In a first-term party government, those mistakes could perhaps be forgiven.  But for a government already long past its expiration date, those mistakes proved politically fatal for Wynne.

She herself has admitted to one of them: not being quick enough to understand the massive outrage over skyrocketing hydro bills.  These had indeed been caused by 10 years of solid and necessary Liberal investments in hydro infrastructure.  Like Dalton McGuinty before her, Wynne failed to convince voters about why the government had to do what it had to do.  In fact, the Liberals had brought some sanity to the hydro file which had been neglected for so long.  But the public had come to believe the opposite, thanks to years of incessant negative campaigning by the conservative media and opposition.  

When Wynne finally did react to the outrage, she lost the moral high ground by re-amortizing hydro debt over decades, pushing off those costs to future generations to pay so folks today can blast their air conditioning up with reckless abandon.  In essence, she made her government little different from previous governments that had failed on the hydro file. 

Plus Wynne's decision to sell a good portion of Hydro One to the private sector lost Wynne the progressive vote.  That was the one move she made that I heard the most grief about from people who had otherwise supported Wynne in 2014.

When this election started, I was a bit stubborn and refused to believe the anecdotal evidence as well as the handful of pollsters telling us Wynne was dead on arrival.  But once virtually all the polls started showing the same thing - Wynne's Liberal support diving to the low 20s, while Andrea Horwath's NDP surged into the 30s - it was impossible to deny it anymore.

Yes, it seems that 75% of Ontarians had decided before this campaign that they'd seen enough of Wynne's government.  Her budget was massively cynical too, promising billions in new spending even though the biggest knock against the Liberals had been their financial management (at least in conservative circles.)  The budget had zero impact on lifting Liberal fortunes and the phrase "Care, Not Cuts" rang hollow.

I'll give credit to Andrea Horwath for taking advantage of the situation to grow NDP support.  She convinced many progressives and centrists, including myself, to vote NDP to stop the PCs.  But yet again, as always with the NDP, they failed to deliver.

Every election the NDP has a "breakthrough," we're also smashed with a Conservative majority.  In 2011, Jack Layton's Orange Crush simply buried the Liberals in third place and allowed the Conservatives to coast to a majority with only about 40% of the vote.  The same thing happened in Ontario this week.

I may have been wrong about a number of things at the start of this election, but I wasn't wrong about one thing: Ontarians, when push comes to shove, simply are not inclined to put the NDP in power.  

Horwath's surge this election was efficiently stopped in its tracks by the Ford campaign when they highlighted the numerous NDP paper candidates with highly questionable past behaviours or statements.  Those revelations suddenly reminded moderate folks that the NDP is home to many far-lefty yahoos many would have a problem letting babysit their kids, let alone govern the province. In siding with the Tories throughout most of the 905, I'd say those voters simply felt they had little choice this time.   

If Horwath and her great team of strategists knew they wanted to fight the 2018 election to win, why did they not recruit stronger candidates in winnable or targeted ridings?  In the end, the NDP's strongest asset was Horwath herself, and the public thinks highly of her.  But it wasn't enough.  

Yes this is a sexist world in which an accomplished woman with little management experience outside of politics will be seen as less qualified than a man who inherited his company from his dad, allegedly mismanaged it, but still has a way with words that impresses just enough voters to win.  

2018 may have been the best year for the Ontario NDP to win another election.  They faced a government roundly despised by the public and on its way out, and a new PC leader greatly untested and despised in many corridors with not much of a plan.   Plus they had a bright and popular leader promising some pretty nice things, now a seasoned veteran in her third campaign.  I believed Horwath truly deserved to win this election, all things being fair.  

But Ontarians said no to Horwath.  It wasn't even close.  If the NDP couldn't win this year, I have to doubt these conditions will ever present themselves again.  The federal NDP's Orange Crush eventually receded.  It's highly likely the same thing will happen in Ontario as the Ontario Liberals begin to recover under a new leader.  

The Liberals got clobbered far worse than they deserved, I say.  Their massive defeat was exacerbated by the NDP sucking up strategic voters, leaving the Grits competitive only in a handful of seats.   Now with seven seats, they lose official party status unless Doug Ford decides to grant them those privileges.  If Ford does, he'll show a side that'll reassure those voters who still have misgivings about him, that he's not a tyrant like Harper who just wants to crush his opposition.  It'll be a telling test.  Denying the Liberals official party status, despite winning just under 20% of the vote, would in effect be Ford silencing those voters.  It would be his first major mistake (of many, I predict.) 

Regardless, the road back for the Ontario Liberals will be long and hard.  They won't have a Trudeau to come rescue them and return them to power earlier than they deserve.  It'll take years of tough slogging for whoever wins the leadership next to get known to the public and rebuild.  And that person will have few resources to do it, now that the party is massively in debt.  No doubt, party headquarters on St. Mary Street in Toronto will have to close, and most provincial party staff will have to be laid off.   The 7 MPPs will only have their own office budgets, again unless Ford grants the Liberals some kind of party status.

But if Ford also keeps his promise to get rid of public party subsidies (which replaced corporate and union donations), that'll eliminate a crucial source of funding for the Liberals and make rebuilding even harder.

Looking amongst the 7 Liberal MPPs, there might be a couple individuals who might make a good leader.  I'm curious about re-elected Don Valley East MPP Michael Coteau.  He'd be the first person of colour to win the leadership of a major Ontario party, plus he's only 46 years old.  Plus Ottawa South's John Fraser is a very decent and likeable guy, although at 59, he might be too old for the long road back which might take at least 8 years until the Liberals are actually competitive again.  Ultimately the Ontario Grits may need to go outside this tiny caucus to find its next leader. 

We shall see how the next few weeks and months and years go. 

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