Toronto·Analysis

2015 election has parallels to 1999 Ontario vote

Political affairs specialist Robert Fisher outlines the lessons that observers of this year’s federal vote can take from Ontario’s 1999 provincial election.

Former Ontario PC premier won reelection by attacking 'untried' Liberal rival, Dalton McGuinty

Federal Tories may be looking at Mike Harris's 1999 relection for inspiration during this fall's close campaign, Robert Fisher says. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

With two weeks left in the 2015 campaign, an election that was supposed to be all about change, may end, as they say in french, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

(Roughly translated, that's "the more things change, the more they stay the same.")

At the outset of this campaign, polls suggested that the Harper government was in for a rough ride, with the NDP riding high. Now, it's the NDP who appear to be taking a licking at the polls, while the Tories' chances of forming a majority government have brightened.

The lesson here? Don't count out an incumbent party with sluggish poll numbers and an unpopular leader.- Robert Fisher

With the October 19th vote approaching, I'm reminded of the similarities to an Ontario election from 16 years ago.

In 1999, for example, many had counted out the Mike Harris Conservatives at the outset.

Harris and his government, which included future Harper administration stalwarts Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement and John Baird, rode uneven popularity numbers into the election.

They had spent the first four-year term implementing what were decried as austerity measures, including a 22 per cent cut to social assistance and, in the view of many, a dismantling of education and healthcare.

People took to the streets  by the thousands, determined to keep Harris from a second term, even highly-paid U.S. Republican operatives moved north to ensure his re-election.

The Harris Tories campaigned for another mandate on their record on the economy, on tax cuts and cutting the deficit. Meanwhile, they attacked the untried 43-year-old Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, successfully portraying him as not up for the job. Sound familiar?

In the end, Ontario voters agreed McGuinty was not Premier-ready, though they did elect more Liberals.

Harris was re-elected to his much-coveted and, as it would turn out, much bragged-about second majority government, albeit with fewer Conservative members. And fewer of Howard Hampton's New Democrats made it back to the Legislature.

So an election that initially seemed to be all about change actually saw very little of it until 2003, when McGuinty was elected to power.

The lesson here? Don't count out an incumbent party with sluggish poll numbers and an unpopular leader. A lot can change in politics, and this federal campaign is proving to be a tough one to read.

Will Conservatives switch sides?

It is anecdotal, but the sense I get in talking to people in places like Walmart and Tim Hortons and in watching all-candidates debates, is that people, even lifelong Conservatives, are conflicted about how to vote.

They will tell you they are concerned by the Duffy spending scandal and they actually boo Conservative candidates who suggest Stephen Harper runs an "open and transparent government."

But making the leap to Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau may just be too much for a lot of people.

The polls are all over the map, but do suggest there's been some stability in the Tory numbers for the past few weeks. We may find on election night that it may be true to say: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for CBC.ca. He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.

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