Wynne's Liberals stung in Ontario byelections

Ontario's byelections were tough on the ruling Liberals, leaving Premier Kathleen Wynne and her party with some fresh, though not necessarily fatal, wounds, the CBC's Robert Fisher writes.

Ruling party left with fresh, though not necessarily fatal, wounds

Kathleen Wynne is still Ontario's premier but her Liberal party — battered by the ongoing scandals — is licking some new, though not necessarily fatal, political wounds after Thursday's byelections. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Byelections are, in the words of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, both "unpredictable" and "tough for government."

"They’re… a pretty risk-free way for people to send a message to government."

It turns out Wynne was right on all counts. The byelections were tough and voters did send a message to the Liberals.

Wynne remains premier but her Liberal party — battered by the ongoing gas plant scandal and the misspending of millions of taxpayer dollars at eHealth and Ornge — is licking some new, though not necessarily fatal, political wounds.

Five Liberal strongholds and two wins to show for it: Toronto’s east-end Scarborough-Guildwood and Ottawa South.

Three losses: Etobicoke-Lakeshore, London West and Windsor-Tecumseh.

The Ottawa win, if nothing else, shows the Liberals had stronger on-the-ground organization after decades of former premier Dalton McGuinty’s presence in the riding.

But what do these results mean? The simple answer is not much — though there are striking parallels with the recent provincial election in British Columbia.

Questions for Hudak

In B.C. Liberal Christy Clark faced caucus resignations, byelection losses, scandals and forecasts of an NDP government.

But the polls were wrong and voters gave Clark another chance, unwilling to mark their X for NDP leader Adrian Dix.

In Ontario, Wynne is Clark and PC leader Tim Hudak is Dix.

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak drove to London for a win that didn’t happen, then turned around and headed to Etobicoke-Lakeshore. (CBC)

Wynne is more popular than Hudak and Hudak’s party is more popular than him. That’s a problem — even with the win in west-end Toronto and strong showings in Ottawa and Windsor — an area of the province that hasn’t elected a Conservative in 50 years. 

Coming in second in Windsor is almost as good as winning.

But a better showing would have calmed those in Hudak’s own caucus who still haven’t forgotten what happened to the party in the 2011 provincial election — the victory that wasn’t, blame for which was laid at Hudak’s feet.

He, like Wynne, lowered expectations for the byelections, then upped the ante at the prospect of winning in Ottawa and London. Hudak was so confident he drove to London for a win that didn’t happen, then turned around and headed to Etobicoke-Lakeshore for a real victory.

In the days and weeks ahead Hudak will face questions about what happened.

NDP gains momentum

The results for the government don’t come as a surprise. Liberals privately talked of one win and maybe none. So two looks pretty good.

Byelections are protest votes not referendums. Voters were protesting against McGuinty’s years, not Wynne’s months, as premier no matter what the opposition says.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has shown that polls calling her the 'most popular' of the three main leaders are no flukes. (CBC)

Still, there is work to do in "reading the tea leaves" of the final numbers.

Clearly, it was a mistake to anoint Ken Coran as the Liberal candidate in London West.

The premier will "wear" that decision since she hand-picked the former president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation — a choice that upset local Liberals who keenly remember how Coran worked to get a New Democrat elected in the 2012 byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Meanwhile, the NDP wins in London and Windsor provide leader Andrea Horwath with more momentum. Horwath has shown the Liberals that polls calling her the "most popular" of the three main party leaders are no flukes, making her hard to ignore in whatever future talks she has with Wynne.

Game changer in Toronto

In Windsor, Jeewen Gill, a first-time candidate with years of backroom experience, never was election-ready and was simply overwhelmed by the much more experienced and popular New Democrat Percy Hatfield.

There were better choices but Queen’s Park Liberals, aware of the push-back in London, decided not to intervene.

The Scarborough-Guildwood race was closer than most Liberals had expected, though they believed all along that Mitzie Hunter, with her ties to Toronto’s CivicAction group, would be able to win.

In the west-end Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore the battle was between two city councillors: PC Doug Holyday and Liberal Peter Milczyn.

Milczyn was expected to hold the riding against the original Conservative candidate, a Toronto police officer. But a change of plan — dropping the cop in favour of the popular Holyday — was a game changer.

Doug Holyday’s ties to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his city councillor brother, Doug, proved too much for the Liberals in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. (CBC)

Holyday’s ties to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his city councillor brother, Doug, proved too much for Milczyn.

The Fords’ message — that Holyday will do at Queen’s Park what they have done at city hall — was simple, straight-forward and understood by voters.

‘Kicked but not booted’

The Liberals will use these byelections, now in the history books, to try to turn the page on the past and prepare for the future and a likely spring provincial election.        

They know they got — as one senior Liberal put it — "kicked but not booted" by the voters.

"We’ve got to do better," he told me, confident that Wynne can do just that.

But between now and the next election Wynne has a lot of work to do.

The legislature resumes Sept. 9 and Liberals now expect a "hellish" time with an emboldened opposition even more determined to finish what they began in these byelections.

Wynne, though, cannot be underestimated.

In 1999 she took on an incumbent Conservative cabinet minister in the Toronto riding of Don Valley West. She was told she didn’t have a chance, but won.

In 2007 she was challenged by the well-known and respected Conservative John Tory. Many wrote her political obit, but Wynne held the riding.

Flash forward to the Liberal leadership race and again Wynne was told she could not win, but did.

Based on the byelection results, Hudak can be expected to continue to push Horwath to withdraw her support of the Wynne government.

But as one senior Conservative put it, based on Kathleen Wynne’s track record, "Tim should be careful what he wishes for."