Until the lights went out, the Ontario election campaign of 2003 had been a painful, on-again-off-again debacle for Ernie Eves' ruling Tories.
It began in the winter, after Eves had spent a year offering olive branches and fat cheques to pretty much everyone the Tories had offended during the tenure of Mike Harris. Despite offers of cash and expressions of support for the province's educators and health-care providers, Eves couldn't catch a break. To critics, he remained the architect of Harris's Common Sense Revolution, which had starved public institutions to finance tax cuts. To supporters, he had abandoned the Harris playbook without offering an alternative set of guiding principles.
The only principle in play, it appeared, was to make Ernie electable. A sudden reversal in May, when Eves unveiled an election platform that came straight from the Harris playbook - demonize teachers, cut taxes, arrest the homeless - only reinforced an impression for many observers that his campaign team was flailing wildly.
Eves and his strategists seemed dumbfounded when it came to tactics that would shore up Tory support. Spring polls commissioned by his party and others showed no groundswell of support for the Tories (indeed, one showed support for the Conservatives at its lowest since before Harris's first victory in 1995). There was no momentum building following a year's worth of carefully staged spending announcements, all designed to make voters forget that problems in the public education and health-care systems could be traced to cuts made by Eves during his tenure as Harris's finance minister. Those spending promises culminated in a budget, the first in Ontario history to be unveiled outside the Legislature, which was overshadowed by allegations that its presentation at a car-parts plant was an affront to Parliamentary convention.
The on-again-off-again nature of the campaign was further aggravated by Ontario's outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The outbreak ground on as summer moved ever closer, and Eves was forced to abandon plans for a spring election as dozens of people died, hundreds became ill and thousands underwent voluntary quarantines.
Crises loomed, and Eves appeared doomed. There was an expense scandal that led to the resignation of Chris Stockwell, perhaps the most popular member of Eves' cabinet. Warnings persisted that a health-care system stretched to the limit by SARS could not handle a widely anticipated outbreak of West Nile virus. Parents worried that their children would be denied a post-secondary education because the Tories had eliminated Grade 13, sending twice the usual number of students off to university this fall. The balanced budget started to show cracks, and predictions sprouted that the shortfall could run to more than $4 billion.
Then there was the crisis that may yet prove to be Eves' salvation.
Energy experts had warned that, through years of neglect, the province simply didn't have enough electricity to make it through another hot summer, and predicted rolling blackouts that would shut down air conditioners across the province. They were wrong, as it turned out: when the great blackout of 2003 hit Ontario, it was a failure of the transmission system, not the generating system. Furthermore, the problem didn't even originate in Ontario - it was an American utility playing fast and loose with protocols and regulations that plunged a good chunk of the continent into darkness for a day or two.
That was all good news for Eves, but the best was yet to come.
He was the premier during a crisis that, while dramatic, was neither of his making nor likely to have broad or long-lasting effects. All he had to do was stand up and look like a leader, reassure the public that everything would be okay and, while taking no responsibility, promise to make sure it didn’t happen again.
After a shaky start, he did just that. Eves was no Rudolph Giuliani but, in a rare recent stroke of political luck, the magnitude of Ontario's power crisis didn't require him to be. Daily press conferences allowed him to look like a take-charge kind of guy in the midst of a crisis – a crisis in which his main rival was virtually invisible – without appearing politically opportunistic. And make the most of that opportunity he did.
In the end, the blackout may have been just what Ernie Eves needed to prove to voters that he was fit to lead them. He knew it, too - no sooner did the power come back on in Ontario then he pulled the plug at Queen's Park.