Liberals Win Ontario 2003 Election | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Liberals Win Ontario 2003 Election

BY THE LAST DAY of campaigning, the death rattle was hard to ignore. You could hear it in Ernie EVES's voice - reduced to a mere croak by feverish, eleventh-hour stumping - and in the scattered applause of sparse crowds along the Ontario Tory premier's campaign route.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 13, 2003

Liberals Win Ontario 2003 Election

BY THE LAST DAY of campaigning, the death rattle was hard to ignore. You could hear it in Ernie EVES's voice - reduced to a mere croak by feverish, eleventh-hour stumping - and in the scattered applause of sparse crowds along the Ontario Tory premier's campaign route. At a strip mall in Mississauga, Eves stopped to rally his troops with visions of a "third consecutive Progressive Conservative majority." But like the tinny theme music that echoed from the speakers on his campaign bus, the promise rang hollow. As the Tory wagon disappeared over a bleak horizon, a clutch of volunteers stood shivering on the sidewalk, grasping for moral victories. "Winning the vote is obviously important," said Brett McDermott, 25. "But to influence a government, you don't just need members in the legislature, you need dedicated, hard-working people on the ground. That's what we have here."

Maybe. But after eight years of Conservative rule in Ontario, that ground has started shaking - and not just for provincial Tories. With his landslide win in last week's election, Liberal Dalton McGuinty stymied the tax-cutting, government-shrinking campaign formula that had swept the Tories to power under Eves's predecessor, Mike HARRIS, in 1995, and has brought free-enterprise parties to power in Alberta and British Columbia. The repudiation couldn't have been more emphatic: fully 46 per cent of voters put their trust in McGuinty and his team. That was enough to give the Liberals 72 of the 103 seats in the provincial legislature, overwelming the Tories' 24 and the New Democrats' seven. More remarkably, the Grits won by promising to roll back more than $4.5 billion worth of tax breaks planned by the Conservatives - money McGuinty pledged to reinvest in schools and hospitals. For this reason, last week's decision was widely interpreted as a rejection of the tax-cutting, privatizing ethos of Harris's so-called Common Sense Revolution. Even after McGuinty conceded that deficit concerns might delay his spending program, polls gave him a 15-point edge in the race, suggesting voters were motivated by something other than self-interest. "They've rejected the politics of division and chosen instead to work together," McGuinty concluded in his victory speech. "They've rejected fear and chosen hope."

Whatever their reasons, their choice reverberated far beyond Queen's Park. In Ottawa, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion greeted regime change in Ontario like a pilgrim reaching Mecca. "It's very exciting to think that the biggest, richest province in Canada will have a government that shares our own liberal values," he told Maclean's. Like many in the Liberal cabinet, Dion had frequently clashed with the Harris-led Tories on issues ranging from health-care funding to low-income housing, reflecting the deep partisan divide between the two governments. Dion now hopes Ontario will proceed with federal-provincial initiatives that other provinces approved long ago - starting with manpower training and immigration agreements. "Yes, things have been prosperous under Chrétien and Harris," he said, "but there have been a lot of headaches trying to reconcile the two different approaches."

The news was less welcome in Alberta, where the ruling Conservatives have lost a key ally in federal-provincial relations. After winning his first majority, Harris made fast friends with Ralph Klein, frequently backing his Alberta counterpart against what Klein decried as federal intrusions on provincial jurisdiction. Replacing Harris when he left office in April 2002, Eves picked up the line, voicing concerns about the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and federal proposals to create a national health-care council. Klein put on a brave face as the pro-Kyoto McGuinty steamed toward victory, insisting he can work with anyone. But his advisers were skeptical. "Obviously, we'd prefer to have a government in Ontario that's more in line with our own thinking," said one senior official. "I think when Mr. McGuinty's been in power for a while he'll find that issues like Kyoto aren't so black and white."

Together, the responses point to an ongoing realignment of interprovincial powers as a result of recent elections, including the Liberal victory in Quebec earlier this year. Steve Patten, a University of Alberta political scientist, notes that conservative premiers have been setting the intergovernmental agenda for the past few years, primarily because they are able to work together. "The fact that Mike Harris and Ralph Klein think in the same way has really made a difference," he says. With those ties broken, Klein will likely forge closer links with B.C., where Gordon Campbell's provincial Liberals share many of his values, Patten says. He can also hope that the right-leaning Saskatchewan Party unseats the NDP in that province's upcoming election, creating a bloc of conservative governments west of Manitoba. "The situation is more fluid now," notes Patten, "so the potential for change is great."

None of which is to say all conservatives mourn the death of Tory rule in Ontario. At the federal level, Progressive Conservatives are still smarting from the provincial party's decision not to back the federal Tories over the the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 federal election - a move that left federal PC candidates in a curious spot: while some of their Ontario cousins plotted against them in the back rooms, many found themselves answering for the Harris government's least popular policies on the doorstep. Gary Schellenberger, the province's only Conservative MP, recalls getting doors slammed in his face when he ran unsuccessfully in 2000 in Perth-Middlesex, near London. This while two of Harris's cabinet ministers, Tony Clement and Jim Flaherty, campaigned publicly for the Alliance. "I had to chase down some of those [voters]," recalls Schellenberger, "and say, 'Look, I'm a federal Progressive Conservative member. There is a distinction to be made.' "

He did, in the end, win a by-election in the same riding last May. But Schellenberger shed few tears for the provincial party last week, arguing the federal party has a better hope of regaining its status as the "true Progressive Conservatives" without them. At the very least, he says with evident relief, "it's not going to get any harder."


Tories Re-elected in P.E.I.

Think politics matters on Prince Edward Island? Well, consider last week's provincial election, the day Hurricane Juan swept through the province, leaving two-thirds of its households without power. Even so, a startling 83 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballot, many by candlelight, returning Pat BINNS's Tories to power for a third consecutive term. That would be an unprecedented voter turnout virtually anywhere but P.E.I., where elections are serious business. "The ridings are so small that everyone knows the candidates personally," says Peter McKenna, who teaches political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

Adding to the urgency: a few votes mean disproportionately more in Prince Edward Island than they do in bigger provinces. In 1996, for instance, the Binns-led Tories swept into power with 18 seats in the 27-seat legislature despite recording only 2,100 more total votes than the Liberals. Last week's results again underlined the disconnect between a party's popular vote and its clout in the legislature. The Grits, who received 43 per cent of the popular vote, won only four ridings. The competent, managerial Tory administration, on the other hand, took 23 seats - which meant it won 85 per cent of the province's ridings with 54 per cent of the popular vote. During the campaign, Binns bragged about being premier of "PC Island." In a province where 50 votes here or there can make or break an election, that's open to question.

Maclean's October 13, 2003