Surplus and uncertainty as Ontario goes to the polls

By John McGrath
CBCNews.ca | Updated Aug. 31, 2007

John McGrathJohn McGrath

There's a saying in politics that campaigns matter. And that could prove out once again in this Ontario election, set for Oct. 10, because there is an uncertain mood in Canada's industrial heartland.

As things stand, there is a bit of a political vacuum right now in Ontario, there's no big issue. As one backroomer put it, "voters are unsure of the choices they have."

Probably that is because all three of the main parties in the legislature have baggage. For the Liberal premier, Dalton McGuinty, that includes his broken promises from the last campaign, notably the one not to raise taxes, as well as the one to close the province's coal-fired power plants by 2007.

Because of these, McGuinty has been focusing on what his government has accomplished, instead of what it hasn't.

Still, the Liberals had a rough close to the legislature in the spring, so it was difficult to get that message out. McGuinty and his ministers had to face almost daily questions over allegations of fraudulent lottery wins as well as accusations of patronage involving grants to multicultural agencies.

That last one forced the resignation of Citizenship Minister Mike Colle following a devastating report from the provincial auditor general.

Gauging the mood of the electorate, one Conservative remarked recently, "There's not a lot of love out there for Dalton McGuinty." A Liberal responded, "There's not a lot of hate either" and the two sentiments make good bookends for a big, unsettled province heading towards decision day.

The opposition

As for Conservative Leader John Tory, his big problem is the former Conservative premier Mike Harris, even though he hasn't been in office for five years.

Tory has begun to refashion the Ontario Conservatives into a more middle-of-the-road party, but the days of the hard-right Common Sense Revolution, and the upheaval it left in its wake, still appear to weigh on many people's minds. And Tory can't afford to alienate his partisan base by repudiating it entirely.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton has baggage as well: the unpopular government of former NDP premier Bob Rae. That memory is now more than 10 years old, so the hard feelings may be starting to recede.

The other thing going for Hampton is that John Tory is not Mike Harris, so there should be less strategic voting this time around, with fewer potential NDP supporters switching their votes to the Liberals in order to stop the Conservatives. In fact, the three seats the Liberals lost in byelections since 2003, all went to the NDP.

What the polls say

How bunched up is this race at the outset? Well, some indication can be had from recent polling.

Political consultant Graham Murray of G.P. Murray Research has compiled an average of all the available public polls from 2007 to get this picture of the parties popular support.

The Liberals support, at 39 per cent, is seven percentage points below where they were on election day in 2003. The Conservatives, at 35 per cent, are only about one percentage point above their last election results, while the New Democrats, at 19 per cent, are four points above the support they received in the 2003 election.

These numbers point to two potential outcomes in October. The first could well be minority government. With only one exception, political parties in Ontario have needed to achieve 42 per cent of the popular vote in order to win a majority.

The second scenario would see the New Democrats as the king makers — or spoilers — in this election.

In the pre-election jockeying at least, the NDP has grown at the expense of the Liberals. This means more New Democrats could be elected on Aug. 31, but it could also mean more Conservatives will be elected as well, because the NDP would take enough Liberal votes to allow Conservatives to win seats they had previously lost in and around the larger cities.

This prospect of close-combat gains and losses throughout the province can only add to the pressure on the leaders to run as flawless an overall campaign as they possibly can.

What to expect

So what do the three parties need to do to get their best foot forward.

For McGuinty, that probably means he must connect again with the electorate, the way he did in 2003. So far he has been unable to sell his government's accomplishments in health care, education and the environment to the extent that will ensure him a majority.

John Tory is the newcomer here. He's been leader for three years but this is his first campaign as a leader and he has to define himself better, to tell people what he stands for, and not just what he is against.

Tory is a former cable company executive and longtime Conservative insider. But the public does not have a clear idea of who he is, except maybe that he is the one who will extend full public funding to all faith-based schools. That appears to be the one issue that grabbed peoples' attention in the usual politics-free zone that is summer in Ontario.

The NDP's Howard Hampton has to make sure he doesn't blow the best opening the party for some time. He has had good reaction to his campaign for a $10 an hour minimum wage, especially when played against the 25 per cent pay raise that most MPPs voted for themselves.

But that may not be enough though. He is going to have to reassure people that his policies are both innovative and safe at the same time.

This election is the first in the country to take place under a fixed date, set by legislation. And while the official kickoff is Sept. 10, the reality is that all three parties have been setting their platforms in place plank by plank for some time now.

Premier McGuinty's recent announcement at the Association of Municipalities that he is willing to "upload" almost a billion dollars worth of welfare and disability benefits from the backs of city governments has to be seen as one such platform.

But the key one to focus on may be Finance Minister Gregory Sorbara's somewhat surprise revelation that the province posted a $2.3 billion budgetary surplus last year (2006-07) and is working on a modest one again for the current fiscal year.

Last year's went right to pay down debt and, for the Liberals, was meant to be seen as a mark of their economic stewardship. But for all three parties, the event marks a return to good side of the fiscal ledger and perhaps even a tempting bit of spare change with which to woo prospective supporters, especially with the race looking as close as it is.

One word of warning here: recent history shows that elections in Ontario can be a bit of a crapshoot. Since 1975, more than half ended up with a different result than the ones experts were confidently predicting when the campaign began.

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