Tim Hudak's staunch hard-right austerity message failed last night to vault his Progressive Conservatives over the incumbent Liberals, but pundits say the loss will also be a sobering lesson for federal Tories with an eye on seat-rich Ontario.
The PC leader, who signalled his intent to resign last night after falling to Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, had campaigned heavily over 42 days on his Million Jobs Plan, while also proposing the elimination of 100,000 public sector positions.
To Ontario voters, though, the fiscal prudence and downsizing themes may have eclipsed Hudak's more sunny job-creation promises.
The backlash at the polls was a bit of a déjà vu moment for Chris Cochrane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
"It's exactly the same message as we saw happen with the Reform Party failure, then the Canadian Alliance failure, which is you don't win with a radical conservative agenda in Canada," Cochrane said, noting that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "great achievement" was his ability to rebrand the federal Conservative party as one committed to "incremental, rather than radical change."
- Liberals re-elected with majority in Ontario
- Tim Hudak to step down as Ontario PC leader after party's defeat
- More votes but more questions about Horwath's leadership
Cochrane said Hudak may have been wiser to follow the federal example, which eventually resonated with voters.
Turned off by 'stern fiscal austerity'
"I think Tim Hudak thought one of the mistakes he didn't want to make was to pitch a 'mushy middle' agenda, so he pitched something designed to appeal to his voters, his base. The problem is it also has the effect of motivating your opponents," he said.
The province's $12.5-billion deficit and the taint of Liberal scandals notwithstanding, voters were apparently not ready for Hudak's austerity scheme.
- Ontario election 2014: Liberals ride GTA strength to majority
- Liberal gains highlight surprises in Ontario election
"People tend to be drawn more to negative information than positive information, so if you're saying you're going to fire 100,000 to hire a million, there's no guarantee they're going to remember the million," Cochrane said.
Cristine de Clercy agrees that "corrosive" talk of attrition may have had a chilling effect on the electorate.
De Clercy, the director of the Leadership and Democracy Lab at the Western University, expects Ottawa political operatives to look carefully over the next few months at get-out-the-vote tactics and effectiveness of policy pronouncements to piece together where the PC party ran into trouble.
"For the federal Conservatives, there may be lessons to be learned that a commitment to stern fiscal austerity may not be attractive to Ontarians, given Ontario's economic context," she said.
To Hudak's credit, it was a bold strategy, she said. But instead of invigorating voters to embrace a new economic path, it brought to mind bad memories of mass civil servant layoffs from former PC leader Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution of the 1990s.
"I don't think Mr. Hudak, over the course of the whole campaign, intentionally tried to position himself as Mike Harris 2,” de Clercy said. Nonetheless, voters may have seen him that way, she said.
Comfort in status quo
Thursday night's outcome was the PC leader's second unsuccessful bid to become premier. Prior to this election, Hudak went on what de Clercy described as a "soul-searching endeavour," consulting with Canadian and U.S. conservatives, including prominent American anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.
'I think many people decided to go with the status quo because things are bad and they really don't want to see them worse' - Cristine De Clercy, director of the Leadership and Democracy Lab at Western University
The meetings reportedly helped him firm up his policy stance and possibly inspired him to "take up a clear position and not shy away from saying, 'I believe we need more fiscal austerity to fix Ontario's economy,'" de Clercy said.
Against that option, the Liberals emerged as a safe choice, despite debacles involving the cancelled power plants, eHealth spending and the Ornge air-ambulance service.
"I think many people decided to go with the status quo because things are bad and they really don't want to see them worse," de Clercy said.
Marcel Wieder, a Toronto-based political strategist who worked on three Liberal campaigns this election, said Hudak may have gone "a little too far to the right."
"The austerity, the attack on labour which has motivated a lot of people to stand up to Tim Hudak, it sends a clear message to Stephen Harper that the type of right-wing campaigning he is proposing is not going to sell in Ontario," Wieder said.
It was, at least, a very good day for Wynne. Her party survived a nail-biting campaign in which polls had put her in a three-way split with Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in the days leading up to election night.
In the end, it may not be all that disadvantageous for Harper to have a Liberal government in power in Ontario, according to Lydia Miljan, a political science professor with the University of Windsor.
"Often, it works well for [the Conservatives] because it gives them room to govern from the right federally, and also allows the Liberals, provincially, to attack the federal government,” she said.
"Besides, provincial politics in Ontario is very different from federal politics in Ontario."