TORONTO – Premier Dalton McGuinty’s bid for the majority government he was denied last October will be decided today by the voters of Kitchener-Waterloo in one of two provincial byelections.
The Kitchener-Waterloo byelection became necessary when McGuinty appointed veteran Conservative Elizabeth Witmer to a $188,000 a year job as chair of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
Political scientist Barry Kay at Wilfrid Laurier University says the strategy to get a majority government appears to have turned off voters.
Kay says people are not ready to give McGuinty a majority, calling the tactic a “negative factor” for the Liberals.
The New Democrats made it a close three-way race in Kitchener-Waterloo, and hope for an upset in a riding they’ve never held.
The governing Liberals are expected to easily win the other byelection in Vaughan, retaining the seat vacated by former finance minister Greg Sorbara.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak says Kitchener-Waterloo was more of an Elizabeth Witmer seat than a Tory stronghold, insisting a loss would not hurt his leadership of the party.
The opposition parties said the Liberals picked a fight with teachers and recalled the legislature for an emergency session to distract voters from the scandal at the Ornge air ambulance service and the $190 million cost of shutting down a generating station days before last fall’s election to save Liberal seats in the Mississauga area.
“It was a very cynical ploy that people recognized for what it was, and I think voters of Kitchener-Waterloo were really disappointed that the government decided to go in that direction instead of addressing the real issues they have there,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“They do not want to reward a government that has behaved badly, that has bought seats in the last general election with the cancellation of the power plant, that has ignored precious tax dollars by allowing scandals to happen at eHealth and the Ornge air ambulance service.”
The Liberals’ attempt to portray themselves as strong fiscal managers willing to get tough with teachers to make sure classes began as scheduled Sept. 4 _ which teachers’ unions had always said they would _ backfired, benefiting the New Democrats in Kitchener-Waterloo.
“The teacher question was a factor, but I think it evolved in a direction that McGuinty didn’t anticipate,” said Kay.
Teachers angry with the Liberals and still not willing to support the Conservatives because of the Mike Harris years appear to have turned to the NDP’s Catherine Fife, a former chair of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, making the byelection a true three-way race.
“In byelections, candidates matter a lot more than they do in general elections,” added Kay.
Byelections are traditionally an opportunity for voters to show their displeasure with governments, and the Tories too will be able to explain away an NDP upset in Kitchener-Waterloo, said Kay.
“The Liberals can claim this wasn’t a Liberal riding, and the Conservatives can claim that it wasn’t really about Hudak because it was Witmer’s riding, and both of those comments are true,” he said.
“But there was an opportunity here, and I’m sure when McGuinty opened up that position for Witmer, he wasn’t thinking ‘well, here’s a chance for the NDP to shine.'”