A tale of two crucial Ontario byelections
Dalton McGuinty's moral authority on the line.
Dateline: Tuesday, August 21, 2012
by Geoffrey Stevens
The two provincial byelections being held on September 6, in Kitchener-Waterloo and in the suburban Toronto riding of Vaughan, are much more than a routine exercise in filling a couple of vacant Legislature seats.
They will be a referendum on Premier Dalton McGuinty's leadership. Their outcomes will help to determine the fate of his Liberal government and the political future of the premier himself.
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When McGuinty was first elected to the Legislature in 1990, Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas.
If he wins both, which seems unlikely, he will regain his majority and will enjoy relatively clear sailing at Queen's Park for the next year or more. If he loses both, which is quite possible — byelections being the unpredictable creatures they are — his next few months will a misery. He will lose some of his moral authority to govern. The opposition parties will see nothing to be gained from propping up a weakened Liberal regime and they will be on him like a gang of cutthroat highwaymen. With nowhere to hide, his chances of survival will be slim.
If — this is the third option — he wins one and loses one, which is also quite possible, he will back where he started — with a minority government facing an energized opposition. He will be forced to govern with one hand, while with the other he counts down the days to the next confidence vote in the Legislature.
McGuinty's strength is the continuity he brings to a province that is not comfortable with Tim Hudak and his increasingly right-wing Progressive Conservatives, but that is equally wary of Andrea Horwath and her New Democrats.
Continuity is also McGuinty's weakness. Longevity is a diminished asset in an age of instant communications and gratification, of Facebook and 140-character tweets, in an era of declining voter engagement. (I will be amazed if the turnout in either by-election approaches 50 percent.)
McGuinty has been around for an awfully long time. When he was first elected to the Legislature in 1990, Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas. He's been leader of the Liberals for 16 years, which is two years longer than Bill Davis led the Ontario Tories. His nine years as premier puts him up there with Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister for nine years, and he's closing in on Jean Chrétien (10 years at 24 Sussex).
On balance, his brand of politics — cautious and moderate — has suited Ontario over the past three years. He is quietly progressive on social issues and mildly conservative on fiscal issues, as circumstances dictate. Over time, he has generally been closer to the mainstream of the Ontario electorate than the opposing leaders.
But the mainstream moves. Waterloo region was fertile Liberal ground, federally and provincially, a dozen years ago. Today, almost all the seats are Tory blue. That includes Kitchener-Waterloo, which is Conservative at both levels. In the by-election, McGuinty will not only be bucking the conservative trend in the region, but also the legacy of Elizabeth Witmer, the long-time Tory MPP, who by dint of personal popularity and hard work, made Kitchener-Waterloo her own. The Witmer legacy can only benefit the new Conservative candidate, Tracey Weiler.
The other byelection on September 6, in Vaughan, is different, yet the same. It's the same in the sense of growing Conservative strength as Stephen Harper's federal party has made serious inroads in the seats that ring the provincial capital. Federally, Vaughan is held by one of Harper's prize recruits, Julian Fantino, the cabinet minister and former police chief, who took the riding from the Liberals in a 2010 byelection and held it easily in last year's general election.
Yet the Vaughan byelection is different in that the provincial seat has been Liberal and was held by Greg Sorbara, a former minister who is one of McGuinty's closest and most trusted confidants. Sorbara resigned to devote his political time to organizing the Liberal campaign for the next provincial election.
Two questions face Sorbora and Ontario. How soon will that election come? Will McGuinty still be leading the Liberals?
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.
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