Liberals win an unexpected majority mandate

Despite the scandals and accusations of corruption, despite the allegations of mismanagement and incompetence, Kathleen Wynne led Ontario’s Liberals to an unexpected majority government on June 12, routing Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives, giving the Liberals a fourth straight mandate.

Her victory defied conventional wisdom. Wynne entered the 41 day campaign plagued with spending scandals – a criminal investigation into the Ornge air ambulance services affair, the $1.1 billion cancelled gas plants, the MaRS bailout – and a massive provincial deficit. But voters were unperturbed.

According to Cristine de Clercy, director of Western University’s Leadership and Democracy Lab, “her team did a very good job in trying to communicate to voters that she’s an intrinsically trustworthy person”.

Voters accepted “that although she was part of the McGuinty government, it was really that government – rather than her directly – that ought to bear the responsibility for many of the less fortunate things,” de Clercy said.

The strategy and the message appear to have worked. Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak were relentless throughout their campaigns in (unsuccessfully) trying to connect Wynne with the scandals that emerged during McGuinty’s premiership.

By distancing herself from McGuinty’s record and rebranding her party as one of accountability and responsibility, Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University, believes “Kathleen Wynne was successful in refashioning the Liberal party as something that was not Dalton McGuinty, but also reassuring voters that it is the tried and trusted brand that they come to expect,” he said.

However, some commentators aren’t all that convinced Wynne’s victory, Ontario’s first elected female premier (who is openly gay), is as magnanimous as some are calling it. The Liberals etched out 38 per cent of the popular vote, a single percentage point higher from the last election, while the PCs and NDP won 31 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

Dennis Pilon, an associate political science professor at York University, said “it isn’t really that amazing a victory when we start to drill down into the numbers,” he told CTV News Channel. The Liberals “improved their popular vote by only about one per cent. So we’re still talking about a distinct minority of Ontarians endorsing the Liberals. That’s hardly a mandate,” Pilon said.

Except for a few ridings in Northern Ontario, Wynne’s support came almost entirely from Toronto and the GTA which gave her party the four extra seats it needed to form a majority government. Although her share of the popular vote may be unimpressive compared to the 2011 election it was her left-leaning platform that disappointed the NDP and routed Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives.

June 17. Chartrand. Wynn2014

Wynne campaigned on numerous spending pledges introduced in her May 1 budget that brought the government down. She promised a $29 billion infrastructure fund to improve roads, bridges, light rail transit and funding to expand GO Transit between Toronto and the Niagara Region. She told voters a Liberal government would invest $1 billion into northern Ontario for the Ring of Fire mining development as well as increase spending on business development and social programs like implementing the proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan that would double the benefits retirees receive from the Canadian Pension Plan.

The Liberal platform is costly and ambitious and how the government can successfully implement these programs while promising to erase a $12.5 billion deficit in three years remains to be seen.

“I am fully aware of the challenge in front of us,” Wynne said. “What I said last night to the people of Ontario – that I will do everything in my power, every day, to earn and keep their trust – I mean that. And part of that is making sure that we are wise and prudent with their dollars, because they are hard-earned. The fiscal situation in this province is a challenge, but I know that we are up to it.”

But as Prof. Rose reminds us, “The Liberals are infamous for campaigning from the left and governing from the right. So I would expect Kathleen Wynne to adopt some of her campaign platform (promises) but also abandon others.”

Wynne’s left-leaning campaign may have resonated with some voters, this election seems more about the rejection of the alternatives rather than a broad endorsement of the party’s pledges by the electorate.

Following his defeat Thursday night, Tim Hudak announced he would resign as party leader of the Progressive Conservatives. The austerity measures he campaigned on not only failed to attract votes beyond his core constituents but lost the party ten seats and a four percentage point reduction in the popular share of the vote from the last election.

Hudak’s central campaign promises were a million new jobs for Ontario, balancing the budget by 2016 and cutting personal income taxes by 10 per cent. Although Hudak’s platform failed to resonate with voters what stuck was his pledge to eliminate 100,000 non-essential public sector workers from government coffers.

As political analyst Scott Reid notes, “The economic mindset of the province is that’s very fragile and I think that in many ways helps to explain this outcome: People didn’t want to take a risk on one extreme or another and that’s how they ended up interpreting Hudak’s plan.”

The performance of Andrea Horwath, who triggered the June 12 election, was disappointing for party supporters. The party failed to increase their seat count and will no longer hold the balance of power in the legislature. Horwath also lost important long-time NDP strongholds in Toronto like Trinity-Spadina and Etobicoke-Lakeshore to Wynne who campaigned vigorously in the Toronto area to attract popular NDP demographics.

Horwath conceded after the results were announced that the election was disappointing for the NDP. “I know that many of you here tonight worked so hard and so, so tirelessly and I know that you did an amazing amount of work and I know that perhaps people weren’t hoping for this particular result tonight, but New Democrats are fighters and we are going to keep fighting,” she said.

Although the NDP has managed to increase its seat count in the legislature from 10 seats to 21 since Horwath became leader of the party, the similarities of her campaign pledges to the Liberals and her electoral swing to the right hindered her chances of success. Horwath campaigned on a business friendly platform that alienated her core vote, so much so that mid-campaign 34 New Democrats sent her an open letter who felt she was taking the party away from its core values.

Post-election the central questions now are who will replace Hudak as party leader, whether Horwath can maintain the hold over disaffected NDP supporters and how successful Wynne will be in implementing her ambitious platform while tackling Ontario’s deficit crisis.

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