David Moscrop is a Canadian political commentator whose work has appeared in Maclean’s magazine, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. He’s writing a book about why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones, to be released in spring 2019. You can follow him on Twitter: @david_moscrop.
After nearly 15 years in power, Ontario’s governing Liberal Party (OLP) is up against the wall. Ahead of the June 7 elections in Canada’s most populous province, voters are seriously considering conservative and social democratic alternatives. Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them.
The Liberals have governed the province since 2003. More than once they’ve been expected to lose the government as frustrations over key policy areas including health care, education, transportation and energy took their toll on the governing party — along with a protracted scandal surrounding the cancellation of two gas plants that saw a former aide sentenced to prison. The party held on. It looks like 2018 will be different.
Ontario typically alternates between center and center-right governments. The team most likely to replace the OLP after the election is the Progressive Conservative Party (PC), a staple in the province since the 19th century whose members have governed for a total of eight decades since 1867. Polls have them in majority-government range thanks to their base of support across the province and despite the fact that their leader, Doug Ford, has not presented a clear plan to fund his campaign promises, is widely disliked, has a sketchy past, may have violated party nomination rules and doesn’t seem to know how a bill becomes a law.
But the PC lead is fading. Fast. The province’s social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) is gaining ground. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Poll Tracker has the NDP neck and neck with the PCs in popular support, though not in seat count.
And what do the New Democrats have to thank for this? Well, certainly not ideology, but rather something more useful in the current political climate: a mix of preparation and good fortune.
New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath is the most liked of the three top contenders, and the more voters get to know her, the more willing they are to vote for her. No surprise there. Horwath is the most experienced of the two leading candidates, with 14 years in Ontario’s Provincial Parliament.
Observers have expressed surprise that the New Democrats, who’ve governed just once in the province’s history, are surging. Those folks have things backwards: It would be surprising if Ontarians weren’t flocking to the unscathed social democrats, who come off as competent, squeaky clean and without baggage.
This is a change election. The incumbent Liberals have been around for a long time, have enjoyed their own share of scandals and mismanagement, and they’ve become a cold dish at a hot buffet. Ontarians are angry, distrustful and open to populist appeals — like many North Americans — but only to a point.
Ford is untested, inept and plausibly Trump-esque enough to encourage some center and center-right voters to consider the NDP. His party is still dealing with the scandal of its recent leader, Patrick Brown, who resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct, and it’s already embroiled in another over data theft.
Voters are keen on seeing results, which means that whichever party can best claim the mantle of effective people’s champion will enjoy a boost in support. Ideology is an afterthought, if not a liability, and Horwath has wisely avoided launching an ideological battle.
There are ideological concerns bound up in electoral politics. And values, priorities and approaches to policy are themselves ideological. Moreover, when things go pear-shaped — or are revealed as such — ideology becomes salient, such as during Bernie Sanders’s improbable presidential run in 2015-2016. But that doesn’t mean ideology is typically top of mind for voters.
The New Democrats have offered a platform of affordability and inclusion. It includes drug and dental coverage for the entire province, more hospital beds, student-debt-interest forgiveness and hydro-rate relief by re-nationalizing the province’s energy provider, Hydro One (partially sold by the Liberals in 2015 and mired in controversy in part by the CEO’s multimillion-dollar salary). They’re planning to pay for it through new taxes on corporations and the wealthy — which many support as a trade-off for results.
That may not be the most inspirational rallying cry, but the New Democrats deserve a chance.
If the province is looking for a reset, the options seem to be between empty populism and tempered social democracy. If you’re listening to your gut, this one is a no-brainer.