Ontario Liberal Party's win tied to Stephen Harper's gloomy outlook

Nine of the 10 provinces and all three territories have held elections since the Conservatives were elected to lead the country in 2011, and the results have at times been surprising, unexpected, and downright jaw-dropping — but there is a common theme to most: voters playing it safe.

Stormy economic forecasts have buoyed prospects of parties viewed as more steady at the tiller

Tim Hudak's message of job creation and economic growth was undermined by questions about the math behind his pledge to create one million jobs. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

When the late Jim Flaherty spoke of the economy in his role as federal finance minister, he often referred to the economic recovery as "fragile" and usually paired it with the warning of "troubled waters around us," a reference to the external economic forces at play in the world.

The sustained cautionary tone wasn’t without justification but it was also not entirely altruistic.

In 2011, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives won their long sought majority largely on a message of "don’t rock the boat in troubled waters."

The message found purchase among Canadian voters and, if recent electoral results from the provinces are any evidence, the message seems to still hold.

Since that 2011 federal campaign, nine of the 10 provinces have held elections as well as all three territories.

The results have often times been surprising, unexpected, and downright jaw-dropping — but there is a common theme certainly to most of these: voters playing it safe.

Alberta, Ontario, B.C. all defy pollsters

In Alberta, Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford pulled a surprising, come-from-behind trouncing of the upstart Wildrose Party.

Although Albertans throughout the campaign expressed a desire for change from the 40-plus year dynasty of the PCs — the Wildrose Party's ambitious agenda and seemingly sharp turn to the right left voters with a lot of questions.

In Ontario this week there were different issues, but the same theme returned.

The Wildrose Party's lead in the polls disappeared as voters began to question the party's agenda.
PC Leader Tim Hudak ran an ambitious campaign about ideas but the execution was lacking.

Unable to fully explain the math behind his “million jobs” promise, nor explain how, exactly, he would lay off 100,000 civil servants without impacting services to Ontarians, voters questioned whether he could pilot the ship on the desired course.

In Ottawa, one of the areas his party needed to make gains if it was to form the government, Hudak's apparent wavering on a local light-rail project also hurt public confidence in the direction he would eventually take.

That focus on steady leadership also seems to explain how Christy Clark's British Columbia Liberals overcame a 20-point poll deficit during the campaign and left pollsters struggling to restore their credibility.

Incumbents not always safe​

This isn't to say the current political atmosphere always favours the incumbent.

In Quebec, for the first time since the 1970s, a governing party was not given a second mandate.

The Liberals, still under active investigation amid accusations of corruption, vaulted over the untested Coalition Avenir Quebec, and the Parti Québécois.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois's intention was to run a campaign tightly focused on the economy, jobs, and prosperity. She didn’t want to talk about a referendum – but her fist-pumping star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau did.

Pierre Karl Péladeau introduced separatism into an election campaign in Quebec that had previously been focused on the economy. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)
All that was left for Liberal Leader Phillippe Couillard to do was stay steady on his feet and voters, who worried about what another referendum amid those ‘troubled waters’ would mean, found comfort.

There does, however, seem to be a limit to this rule.

Nova Scotian voters broke a 131-year-old trend in 2013 when they denied a government a second term.

In that case, it would seem broken promises on raising taxes, spiking electricity rates, and other local issues sent voters scurrying for the lifeboats rather than ride the boat over perceived waterfalls.

The one exception notwithstanding, it would seem voters have tended to pick a ship piloted by a captain on a predictable course rather than the one perceived to be wandering the map — even if there's a chance the crew of the boat will pick your pockets as they stroll along the deck.


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