On October 6th, the voters of Ontario elected the Ontario Liberal Party, led by incumbent Premier Dalton McGuinty, to their third consecutive mandate.  Although the Liberals fell just one seat short of a majority, they became the first Ontario party to win three elections in a row since the uninterrupted 42 year rule of the province’s Progressive Conservatives—an impressive run that will be difficult for any party to duplicate any time soon.  The PCs remain the Official Opposition, while the New Democratic Party (NDP) finished third.

In my view, all three parties accomplished something, but none of them came away with a home run.  They all did well, but none did great.  As you consider what happened, recall that 60% of Ontarians thought the Liberals had governed long enough and it was time for a change.  At the same time, 60% of people thought Ontario was on the right track.  In that context, perhaps the divided election results were not all that surprising.

While the McGuinty Liberals did win a third victory, the majority that appeared within reach as late as Monday October 3rd night eluded them.  A third consecutive majority would have given Dalton McGuinty bragging rights to something that even Bill Davis could not claim.  However, the 53 Liberal seats represent the biggest mathematically possible minority that could be had; hence the Premier’s reference to a “major minority” the morning after.  The Liberals lost 17 seats that they had when the election was called (19 from the 2007 election), including four ministers.  The Liberal share of the popular vote dropped by about 4.5% from 2007.  This is a mixed bag of results, until you consider that as recently as July and August of this year, every publicly available poll had the Liberals 10 or 12 points behind, and so all in all, Liberals have to be happy with the outcome.

The PCs also have reason to be happy, and to be not completely satisfied at the same time.  They gained 12 seats, all at the expense of the Liberals. Their share of the popular vote increased by about 4% from 2007.  Their Leader, Tim Hudak, conducted his first campaign, and history tells us that Ontario wants leaders to lose one first (see also Dalton McGuinty, Mike Harris) before handing over the keys to the big office. Personally, I thought Hudak acquitted himself well in the Leader’s Debate. Some Tories have taken comfort in holding the Liberals to a minority.  At the end of the day, however, when the appetite for a change in government was so high, and the PCs were viewed by most as the natural alternative to the Liberals, they didn’t get it done. The pre-writ polls told us it was the PCs’ to lose, and they lost it. So, like the Liberals, some positives for the PCs, but surely not the desired outcome.

The NDP also increased their seat count (+7) and their share of the popular vote.  Like Tim Hudak, Andrea Horwath ran her first campaign as leader.  From my perspective, the NDP could take some comfort knowing that their important numbers increased; however, they remain 20 seats and 12% behind the party that finished second.  Their 2011 seat count and popular vote are hardly new all time highs for them; they have seen these levels before.  Perhaps some of us had the expectation, following the May federal election, of an orange wave.  It didn’t arrive.  However, not that long ago the Ontario NDP caucus could have met in an 8 passenger minivan, so 17 seats is a relatively good outcome.   The NDP seem to be a patient group, content with incremental gains, so in that sense, they had a good campaign.        

The Liberals, after 8 years in power, and having all of the baggage that goes along with that,  ran about as good a campaign as can be expected.  The troika of Dalton McGuinty, Greg Sorbara, and Don Guy now has four elections under their belts, and after having lost the first one in 1999, has put three in a row in the win column.  McGuinty has now defeated Ernie Eves, John Tory, Tim Hudak, Howard Hampton, and Andrea Horwath; no small feat when one considers that McGuinty:

  • Wasn’t even expected to win the Liberal leadership in 1996;
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  • Had to overcome the “not up to the job” label affixed to him, quite effectively, by the PCs in his first election as leader in 1999;
  • Has never really knocked anyone out in a leaders’ debate;
  • Had to overcome a double digit deficit heading into this election;
  • Is continually, and seems to perform best when, underestimated.

Rather than being intimidated by the apparent right turns in the most recent federal and Toronto municipal elections, the Liberals used it to advantage.  It did not go unnoticed by the Liberal campaign that in May’s federal election, most Ontarians decided that now is not a good time to change governments.  Positioning an Ontario Liberal government as a counter balance to the federal Conservative government was a strategic choice as well. The Liberal plea to voters to avoid a Conservative hat trick (federal, provincial, and in Toronto anyway, municipal) helped to give McGuinty a hat trick of his own.

Knowing that McGuinty’s personal popularity numbers were low, the Liberal campaign might have been expected to hide him as much as possible, and trade on the Liberal brand.  Instead, there he was, in the TV ads with a stark white and unadorned background, admitting he wasn’t popular, and going over his record.  McGuinty’s own mantra has been that if voters compare him to the Almighty, he can never win; however, if they compare him to the alternatives, he should do just fine.

It wasn’t difficult, from a Liberal perspective, to anticipate that the PCs would make taxes and government waste the focal points of their campaign.  McGuinty’s message back was yup, I did what I had to do, but check out those lower surgical wait times, look how many nurses got hired, I did full day kindergarten…so yes, you have to pay for it, but look at the progress and all that has been accomplished in the last eight years.  Yes, your hydro bill has increased, because we are rebuilding the province’s electricity system, and along the way, creating tens of thousands of jobs.  If elections really are like an employee performance review, this employee came fully prepared with his list of accomplishments.

Apart from their record, and McGuinty’s strong campaigning abilities, the Liberals relied on a well developed platform (called Forward. Together.) aimed directly at the centre of the political spectrum.  Observers of Ontario politics will know that all three parties have used the term “Ontario families” ad nauseum in the last couple of years.  The Liberal platform had something for every member of those families.  Seniors, working parents, post secondary students, K-12 kids, the sandwich generation, you name it.  With specifics, and fully costed.

As an aside, it would be interesting if someone would study whether single, unattached Ontarians, who don’t necessarily view themselves as a component part of an “Ontario family” tuned out, and stayed home on election day, given the fixation that all three parties had with families. Perhaps this might help to explain why only 49% of eligible voters bothered. Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that all of the parties have become pretty good at voter suppression.  But I digress…

Finally, the Liberal campaign benefited from its war room which was, in a word, lethal.  Once again, the experience of this veteran group really came through.  Their ability to respond immediately, their use of social media, and their branding of their opponents were truly impressive.  For example, the Liberal claims that the PC platform had a “$14 billion hole” in it and that the NDP would raise taxes by $9 billion were hardly ever challenged or substantiated.  The Liberals put those labels out there, and they seemed to stick throughout.

The PC platform, on the other hand, seemed to be a combination of seeking to capitalize on the public’s desire for change; a recognition that a healthy percentage of people felt the province was on the right track; attempting to capitalize on perceived voter anger, and a defensive posture on the two policy areas that the Liberals have successfully victimized the PCs on before, namely health and education.

In fairness, one cannot blame the Tories for being cautious with education.  In the 2007 election, then PC leader John Tory proposed public funding for private religious schools.  Most Tories feel that was the reason why they lost that election.  The Liberal campaign leadership maintains that even if the Tories had never suggested it, they had a game plan to win that election regardless.  We’ll never know.  On health, the Liberals have never hesitated to suggest, explicitly and implicitly, that the PCs’ real agenda is for increased privatization of health care.  Both of these have hurt the Tories and benefited the Liberals before. 

Called “Changebook” (a clever social media reference), the platform document set out how the PCs would, if elected:

  • Keep the hated HST (except on hydro and home heating bills)
  • Maintain the unpopular health tax, embedded in personal income taxes
  • Balance the budget the same year the Liberals would
  • Match the Liberals on health spending
  • Match the Liberals on education spending
  • Keep full day kindergarten (after initially declaring they were against it)

For some reason, the PCs released their platform at the end of May, 2011.  You may recall that Mike Harris launched his Common Sense Revolution one year prior to the 1995 election, and used that year to brand himself as the Tax Fighter.  Jean Chretien released his first Red Book just after the election was called in 1993, giving his opponents little time to react.  The May release date was neither here nor there, but gave the other parties enough time to study it and carve it up.  Recall the “$14 billion hole” accusation made by the Liberals.

The Liberal assessment of Changebook?  Great.  Now that the Tories have agreed to do everything we announced yesterday, they have no room to maneuver on the stuff we will announce for tomorrow.  The Liberals subsequently unveiled their platform on Labour Day.

The PC platform did, in fairness, propose some personal and corporate tax reductions, and pledged to make inmates in provincial jails do community work.  Most media observers dismissed these as being little more than red meat for the right wing core, who almost always vote PC anyway.

The PC spin of their own platform was a little strange.  For example, when asked why the party would pledge to keep full day kindergarten after being initially against it, the reporting journalist was told by a PC insider that the initiative had tested well in focus groups, so the decision was made to leave it in.  This hardly conveyed the sense to voters that the party is truly committed to it.  IN another instance, rather than saying “Tim Hudak’s Apprenticeship Plan Will Create 200,000 High Skilled Jobs”, the PC news release of the day proclaimed “Dalton McGuinty Will Block 200,000 High Skilled Jobs”. Oddly negative. Opportunity lost.

The PCs thought the Liberals had created their own version of the 2007 “faith based schools” issue when, by virtue of an audio taped and leaked conference call, the Liberal policy plank that would incent employers to hire newer Canadians who had professional training overseas, drew the attention of both the media and the PC campaign.  For the first six days of the 28 day campaign, the Hudak campaign railed against the initiative, which they suggested favoured “foreign workers” over Ontario citizens.  The Liberal campaigned clarified that the “No Skills Left Behind” tax credit was no such thing; in fact, they said, it is intended to benefit Ontarians who are newer Canadian citizens and need to gain domestic experience to realize their potential.  This, coupled with the budget making (and potentially service cutting) exercise led by the right wing administration at Toronto city hall combined to cause the Tories to lose every riding within the 416 area code, and all of the ridings in 905 area that border Toronto.

The PC campaign also didn’t help itself with the use of silly props. In the pre-writ period, we saw Tim Hudak showing up at the CNE on opening day in August, with the “Wheel of Tax”, a carnival style prop with McGuinty’s face in the middle, which Hudak would spin to predict which tax McGuinty would raise next.  On the day the Liberals launched their platform, which, although named Forward Together was actually branded “a serious plan for serious times”, the PCs sent a giant inflatable red elephant to a nearby parking lot (unnamed tax increases were supposed to become the elephant in the room).  When Hudak shifted his criticism of the aforementioned tax credit from foreigners to fairness (which is where they should have started from), the PC leader appeared with two life size cardboard cut outs of grown men, with a little label on each pointing out how long each, um, cardboard guy had been in Ontario.  To illustrate their opposition to smart hydro meters and time of use pricing, the PC campaign staged an event in Etobicoke, There, the PC leader stood in front of three old washing machines.  On top of each machine was an old analog clock, like the ones we saw in our classrooms growing up. The message was, ostensibly, that seniors and families should not have to do their laundry in the middle of the night to save money.  Of course, the lowest hydro rates actually kick in at 7:01 PM.  If you don’t recall this, it’s because Etobicoke is the birthplace of “Ford Nation” and the media decided to report on the extent to which the Toronto mayor was hurting the PC campaign instead.

The PCs did not have a monopoly on silliness, by the way.  Inexplicably, the NDP campaign decided, with about ten days left before voting day, that their leader and their party should be characterized by a pair of shiny orange pumps, juxtaposed against two pairs of men’s black dress shoes.  Mind boggling.

One thing that the NDP did learn, and that the Tories apparently did not, especially after the death of Jack Layton, that there is a real hunger for optimistic, positive politicians in the land.  McGuinty figured that out a long time ago.  Horwath seemed to have realized it too, and did pretty well.  In the next election, should the members of the PC party decide in February 2012 to give Hudak another chance, we will likely see a much more upbeat PC leader, being the happy warrior on the campaign trail.

So even though some have called it the “Seinfeld Election” (it was about nothing), Ontario 2011 did provide some good lessons on what works in the province, and what to avoid.

Joseph Ragusa is a Principal at Sussex Strategy Group with over 25 years of experience in government, consulting, and politics. He has held management and advisory roles in numerous political campaigns, including membership on the 2003, 2007, and 2011 Ontario Liberal Party Campaign Committees.  He can be reached at jragusa@sussex-strategy.com www.sussex-strategy.com