Don't do that again: Paul Wells on the Ontario election fallout

Don’t do that again: Paul Wells on the Ontario election fallout

Both the PQ and the Progressive Conservatives bet early on big, bold platforms—so much for that idea



What will haunt election planners for a long time to come is the thought that in Canada’s two largest provinces in 2014, the losing party ruined its own chances early, all by itself. Both times, it thought it was doing something clever.

In Quebec in March, five days after then-premier Pauline Marois called an election, she announced the candidacy of the most prominent recruit the Parti Québécois had landed in ages, media tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau. It was supposed to be proof of the PQ’s clout. But Péladeau pumped his fist as he talked about a sovereign Quebec, and suddenly the election turned into a referendum on PQ doctrine instead of on Liberal corruption. The PQ never recovered.

Fast forward to Barrie, north of Toronto, in May, a week after the Ontario election began. Tim Hudak, the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, needed a few things to break his way if he was to avoid a second consecutive defeat at the hands of the Liberals. He needed to avoid improvised comments that would throw him off message. And he needed to motivate Conservative voters to get out and vote, by showing them he was one of them. His remarks in Barrie were superbly rehearsed. To unleash private investment, he would cut 100,000 public sector jobs.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “I take no joy in this. But it has to be done if we want job creators to put more people on the payroll in our province.”

A month later, on June 12, the Liberals won a fourth consecutive election in a province where Progressive Conservatives once held power for decades on end. Under rookie Premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals’ share of the popular vote actually went up, as did Andrea Horwath’s third-place New Democrats’. Only the Hudak Conservatives lost vote share.

Paul Wells: Why Wynne’s win is historic 

Gallery: We sent a sketch artist to cover the political circus

Video: What the party leaders had to say after the votes had been counted 

At their first caucus meeting after the defeat, Conservative MPPs were near-unanimous in calling the 100,000-job cut the campaign’s turning point. One, Todd Smith, called the announcement “brutal” and “devastating.” Several said they had no advance warning of Hudak’s promise. A senior Liberal campaign strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed with that diagnosis.

Both the Liberals and Conservatives had an interest in a polarized election, with each coveting Horwath’s NDP vote. Each had a reasonable shot at it. If your main goal was to get rid of the Liberals, you might be open to voting either NDP or Conservative. (Ideologues on the left and right have a hard time imagining such an exotic creature as a Conservative-NDP switcher, but they’re not that rare. A lot of people aren’t ideologues.) And if your main goal was to stave off government cuts, you might consider either Liberals or New Democrats a reasonable vehicle.

The question when the campaign began, the Liberal strategist said, was which of the Liberals or Conservatives would become the bigger target. Hudak answered the question in Barrie.

“We knew that Tim would want to polarize the vote,” the strategist said. “Did we ever dream that he’d be dumb enough to come out with the 100,000 jobs and be that obvious? Nope.”

Six days after Hudak’s Barrie speech, Wynne toured the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, which didn’t yet exist when an E. coli outbreak in the town’s water supply killed seven people in 2000. That visit was not part of the original campaign itinerary, the Liberal strategist said. Getting Wynne to Walkerton after Hudak’s announcement “was no small strategic decision,” he said. “That was all about sending the message that cuts have consequences.”

To some extent, Wynne’s entire tenure as premier has been about arguing that cuts have consequences. That’s what makes her re-election significant beyond questions of electoral tactics: since she replaced Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader 16 months ago, she has reinforced Ontario Liberals’ activist streak despite an increasingly worrisome fiscal climate.

That climate was described, at McGuinty’s request, in a 2012 report by economist Don Drummond. It said Ontario’s shrinking industrial base couldn’t afford government spending at the pace the McGuinty Liberals had set, and called for “a wrenching reduction from the path that spending is now on.” He didn’t pretend it would be easy: “The government will have to cut program spending more deeply on a real per capita basis and over a much longer period of time than the [Mike] Harris government did in the 1990s.”

McGuinty took at least parts of the Drummond report—which, after all, he had commissioned—to heart. His finance minister at the time, Dwight Duncan, delivered a 2012 budget that carried the title “Strong action for Ontario,” with a speech that began, “Everything we continue to do must be done more efficiently and even more effectively. All of us in this legislature, and all Ontarians, must turn our attention first to balancing the budget.”

Then McGuinty retired while the cost to taxpayers of abruptly cancelled gas-plant construction contracts mounted. Wynne won the Liberal leadership and lost no time turning away from McGuinty’s discourse of relative austerity. In 2013 a new finance minister, Charles Sousa, delivered a budget whose title was “A prosperous and fair Ontario,” with altogether cheerier rhetoric. “We must build our economy and prepare our workforce for the future by supporting one another today,” Sousa said. “We reject across-the-board cuts.”

Those instincts defined the second Wynne-Sousa budget a year later, the one the minority Liberal government fell on, forcing this election. Now that they’ve been returned with a stronger mandate and a majority in the provincial parliament, they’ll implement Wynne’s plan for higher taxes and fees, a plan that makes a return to fiscal surplus less of a sure thing than if McGuinty had stuck around, never mind if Hudak had won the election.

Jonathon Gatehouse spoke to Wynne earlier this week. Listen to this interview here:

Wynne’s bet is that smart investment can grow Ontario out of straitened circumstances. Don Drummond was categorical: that can’t be done. “Ontario cannot count on a resumption of its historical strong growth rates,” he wrote in his report. The Liberals have four years to demonstrate that Drummond was wrong, or that Ontarians won’t mind if he was right. It’s a tall order, but Wynne volunteered for the job.

How will her government get along with Stephen Harper’s? As well as any ever has. Harper called for two successive Ontario Conservative leaders, John Tory and Hudak, to defeat Liberal incumbents. Neither succeeded. He’s stuck with Liberals, as Jean Chrétien was stuck after 1995 with Mike Harris’s Conservatives, as Pierre Trudeau and Bill Davis were stuck with each other. The glory of a federation is that governments that can barely stand the thought of each other must work to improve life for the same citizens.

As for guessing the implications of Wynne’s victory for Harper’s political future, that’s a mug’s game if ever there was one. Harper won more than 44 per cent of the popular vote in Ontario in 2011. It didn’t stop the provincial Liberals from winning two elections since then. Why would Wynne’s victory have decisive influence in the other direction? Every government has to win its own elections on its own terms. But leaders are advised to avoid making any sudden moves in a campaign’s first week.


Don’t do that again: Paul Wells on the Ontario election fallout

  1. Hudak, became well, just another Whodak ?
    McGuinty turned coward, and quit-(or would have been thrown out).
    Harris was a monstrous ediot.
    Trudeau and Davis, had atleast basically worked together, as it obviously turned out, for all of our betterment(s).

    Politicians and diapers need to be changed often … and for the same reasons.

    • Interesting – but if this was not time for a “diaper change” in Ontario, then I don’t know when??

      • Holding one’s nose was the lesser of evils.

  2. The election is over, so there is not much point in arguing. But it interesting that the Liberals can say “Walkerton” and the voters stampede to vote Liberal while the PC can say “gas plants” and “ORNGE” till the cows come home, and lose in popular support!?! The lesson is of course that politicians must be smooth, say what people want to hear and kiss babies. Plus it helps if the mighty unions and “Working Families” are on your side. Not sour grapes, I did not vote PC – but we see what worked.

    • People died in Walkerton.

      Ornge and gas plants were just money.

      Plus it’s the tin ear… bright do you have to be to know nobody is going to want to start financially supporting religious schools? Along with ideas like chain gangs in parks?? And the 100,000 eliminated jobs?? When we have high unemployment??

      The ‘right-to-work’ idea has been around for 3 Tory leaders now….and while Hudak was persuaded to backburner it….it’s always still there, simmering away.

      In a union province.

      When times are tough, people want help. Not austerity.

      • I have rarely seen the Liberal doctrine expressed so clearly!! “Just money”, a few billions here and there – we just take up loans and go deeper in debt. No big deal, nobody is responsible. But those two beer drinking brothers up in Walkerton, who falsified logs and test results, that was Mike Harris’ responsibility!? Where where the municipal and county officials? No Mike Harris should personally have stopped them, or hired provincial inspectors en masse to either control all the work of municipal workers or do the work for them! How big tax increases are you prepared to accept for this huge increase in the number of provincial unionized workers?

        • I see you didn’t understand a word of it though, and btw I’m not a Lib.

          Knowledge and facts are important….beer-drinking ‘good ole boys’ are no substitute for trained personnel.

          Lives are always more important than money. Any party, anytime. You can replace money.

          Ontario has a large GDP, and supplies 40% of our national GDP. Deficits come and go….the province goes on. Cons only count outgo….never income. Taxes go up and down.

          If we developed the ‘ring of fire’ then just by itself it could solve our current financial problems….there is no need to panic. We are going to be building infrastructure….that’s also jobs. You have to spend money to make money.

          We had far greater financial problems in the 1840s….yet here we remain.

          Ontario is big, and diverse. Relax.

          • Not to mention that if we were receiving our fair share of revenue from Ottawa we would be much closer to a balanced budget. And as we spend the least per capita, is cutting necessarily what we wan to be doing?

  3. Im so happy to give 1/2 my income to the parasitic corrupt bunch of unionized babies which is the ontario public sector. Hopefully they go on strike because they’re not getting a 10% raise for scratching their b@lls all day or sleeping on the job.

    • There is something about Cons that make them want to attack trained, well-paid people.

      Jealousy, likely.

    • As an FYI, one of the larger unions public service unions (AMAPCEO) just came out of a 2 year wage freeze with 5 vacation days clawed back. Current contract negotiations call for another 2 year wage freeze, and a reduction of medical benefits, and reduction in pension benefits.

      Facts are your friends.

  4. Kathleen Wynne won the provincial election and the union thugs won a free ride at the expense of Ontario’s hard-pressed taxpayers. The public sector union leaders know that the outlandish wages and benefits that they demand are the greatest threat possible to the viability of the social programs that they claim to care so much about. They know that they are bankrupting jurisdictions all over North America and its getting harder and harder to think that it’s not deliberate. They convinced gullible Ontario voters that Tim Hudak is dangerous but Tim Hudak is not the one who has bankrupted one N. American jurisdiction after another, in addition to bankrupting so many industries. What’s the hidden agenda of the union leaders? The public is starting to demand answers.

    • The ‘thugs’ are firemen and cops and nurses and pilots and technicians and so on…and have no reason to want their home ruined.

    • Republican Tea Bagger talking points sell so well to the uninformed, Why is it you and your ilk detest your fellow Canadians who provide the services that every one of us uses, for making a living wage and having decent pensions on which to retire? No doubt you would much rather give your money to the corporate bosses for their fat salaries and the corporations so they can buy off the politicians. Meanwhile all you have is a piece of overpriced, made in China, electronic junk that is obsolete the day you bought it. Try getting your drinking water or your surgical procedure from that.

      In western democracies the middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer while the wealthy are gobbling up your cash and stuffing it in untaxed, off-shore accounts. The 2008 global financial crisis destroyed the livelihood of millions but the institutions that brought down the world economy are now richer and more powerful and the wealthy who for sure weren’t the unionized workers, have benefitted the most. The 20 richest individuals in the world now own as much as the 350 billion people at the bottom of the economic ladder and those who think like you are their best friends because you vote for them to continue amassing more and more wealth and leaving more and more of your fellow citizens behind.

  5. There is no place for a la Tea party policy in Ontario never mind Canada and Harper has been a little smart in this matter, I give that,but with another majority government I don’t know what he would do, is obvious that his policy are becoming more and more reformist style just check the latest bill from the election act to sex worker bill and also all nomination for post in places where people should be independent minded.

    • As stated above, the election is over and the unions-Liberals won. I heard in the campaign that there are 1.1 million employees of the Ontario provincial government. Hudak wanted to eliminate 100,000 of those through attrition, to bring it down to 2009 levels. one point one million paid by taxes plus all those who work for municipal, regional and federal governments. The facts that individual firemen and teachers may be nice people does not negate the fact that the tax-base will be hard pressed to fund all their salaries, benefits and pensions, plus the hiring of an ever increasing number of civil servants! But the war is over for this time, the public service unions won. However, there is not an unlimited pot for all their demands so the issue will be revisited, whether we want to or not.