But now the Liberals have somehow won a fourth term in office, and by an even larger margin than their previous mandate, when their stench of scandal and fiscal incompetence was significantly milder. Conservatives like me are expected to have some sort of response to this, so here goes:
Thought #1: Canadian voters are lazy, and simply like blindly re-electing whoever’s currently in charge.
Ontario has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2003. Quebec, aside from a 18-month separatist blip, has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2003. British Columbia has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2001. Manitoba has been governed by the NDP since 1999. Alberta has been governed by the Conservatives since 1971. Every party running each of Canada’s five largest provinces, in short, has been in charge for over a decade now, and has won at least three back-to-back elections. A fourth term for the Liberals seems consistent with a larger Canadian trend of supporting incumbent parties more or less by default, and expressing abnormally high skepticism for those offering something new.
Thought #2: If incumbency provides such an advantage, we should change the rules so appointed premiers who inherit office from their predecessors are forced to call elections as soon as possible.
Kathleen Wynne served as premier of Ontario for more than a year and a half without being elected to that office by anyone other than the 1,000-odd party hacks who appointed her Liberal leader following Premier McGuinty’s 2013 resignation.
It would be absurd to argue Wynne did not benefit electorally as a result of this set-up. If nothing else, spending that much time as premier before actually running for premier made her a familiar face to voters, and a woman who was, by definition, easy to imagine in the province’s top job. That year-and-a-half head start also gave her the advantage of being able to use the powers of her office for electoral gain — for instance, by introducing a left-wing budget designed to leech voter support from the NDP.
In America, when a senator abruptly resigns or dies, the governor gets to appoint a replacement. In states like New Jersey, that then triggers an emergency election in which voters are summoned to either approve the appointment or elect someone else. I think Canada could benefit from a system like this for premiers. Say, any appointed premier should have to call a provincial election within a month of inheriting the job.
Thought #3: It can’t be denied: Tim Hudak ran a terrible campaign.
Mr. Hudak ranks up there with former BC NDP boss Adrian Dix in terms of men who were handed power on a sliver platter only to slap it down in a fit of erratic incompetence. In seeking to unseat what he correctly described as the most corrupt government “in Ontario history,” all Hudak had to do was run a relatively low-key campaign and squawk endlessly about how awful the Liberals were and how embarrassed anyone should be to support them. If the election was a stark up-or-down referendum on the Liberal record and Liberal competence he could have easily won by default.
But of course that’s not the campaign Hudak ran. In making the centrepiece of his pitch to voters two dopey, showy numbers — “100,00″ fired bureaucrats and “1,000,000″ new jobs — the Conservative leader daftly turned the campaign into a referendum on himself, and the validity of his math.
Hudak’s numbers were endlessly deconstructed by economists — often unfavourably — while his warnings of “100,000″ firings became Exhibit A in the Liberals’ efforts to paint the man as a cruel, right-wing sadist, who, like Mitt Romney before him, “liked firing people” for fun. His twin promises were both too scary and too utopian, and fulfilled a bevy of negative stereotypes. And of course every day the press spent talking about all this was a day voters weren’t reminded of Liberal awfulness.
Thought #4: Negative works.
Premier Wynne did not have many good things to run on. Her budget — which predicted a magical surplus by 2017 — was widely denounced. Her only scandal defense was saying “sorry.”
So she ran on negatives, and she ran hard. Mr. Hudak was likened to every random right-wing demon under the sun — Stephen Harper, Mike Harris, the Tea Party, the Joker — even poor Ms. Horwath of the NDP was likened to Rob Ford. Wynne held a photo-op in the Walkerton water plant — which poisoned four children in the early 2000s — and warned ominously that budget cuts “have consequences” (despite having cut funding to the plant herself). The Liberals ran ads in which voting Conservative literally made your family disappear. Hudak happily assisted by playing to type (see above).
Unpopular governments can only get re-elected if voters can be convinced to vote against the newcomer, rather than for the incumbent. As the campaign slogan of a particularly infamous Louisiana governor once implored: “vote for the crook — it’s important!” Such appeals clearly won the day in Ontario.
Thought #5: The dynamic of Canadian provincial politics is increasingly union-versus-non-union
I was a bit surprised the NDP did as well as it did last night, given how redundant they’ve become. Premier Wynne helped move the Ontario Liberals quite far to the left, and in doing so, helped complete a process, long in the works, of turning the party into the preferred vehicle of organized labour. The Ontario Liberals now collect more campaign donations from big labour than the NDP, and Wynne ran an election explicitly positioning herself as the only leader capable of defending the rights of government workers (who comprise some 70% of unionized Ontarians) from the sharp blade of Conservative austerity. There’ll be just as many public sector workers under under my rule, she promised — “or more!” For this, she was rewarded with the endorsement of the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and no less than 19 unions running attack ads against Mr. Hudak.
The party systems in most Canadian provinces now offers a clear choice between one union-friendly party (usually the NDP) and one non-union one (the Liberals in British Columbia and Quebec, the Conservatives in the Maritimes, Premier Wall’s party in Saskatchewan, Wildrose in Alberta, etc). Sometimes this divide takes on the character of a right-left ideological struggle, as it did in Ontario, but just as often the fight is simply a reflection of organized labour — the most powerful, entrenched force in Canadian government today — congealing around a single party in order to defend their interests. Considering how union interests are almost universally at odds with interests of fiscal responsibility and efficient public services, this makes union-backed governments uniquely regressive. An especially regressive four years awaits Ontario.
Thought #6: Corruption washes over voters like so much warm water.
“A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic,” Joe Stalin is somewhat dubiously credited as having said. Corruption in Canada is getting to the point where you could say a similar thing about wasted tax dollars. A million here, a billion there — numbers, nothing but numbers.
I honestly don’t think enough voters realize the impact government corruption has on their own lives, though again, part of the blame falls on politicians like Mr. Hudak for consistently failing to explain it. Waste and fraud isn’t just some boring sin of the political class we affect outrage about for reasons of moral superiority; it’s a existential threat to the survival of government itself.
A government that wastes billions in revenue is a government with billions less to spend on something else, which necessitates the need for greater borrowing and debt to make up the difference. Debt, in turn, can only ever lead to bad things — massive cuts to government services, giant tax hikes, or bankruptcy — at which point the problem is no longer quite so abstract.
Thought #7: No one cares that you’re gay.
You can always tell something’s not actually very historic when supporters note it was the first this-or-that “in the history of the Commonwealth.” So the fact that Premier Wynne is the first lesbian prime minister “in the Commonwealth” doesn’t actually tell you anything useful, beyond the predictable fact that there’s never been a gay prime minister in, say Uganda or Pakistan.
Wynne was elected at a time when there are already openly gay mayors, senators, and other high-ranking politicians in democracies all over the world, particularly Europe and America, which of course are two regions excluded from the arbitrary gaggle of random countries that constitute the Commonwealth. I doubt many foreigners can conceptualize what being “premier of a Canadian province” even means, let alone why having a gay one was historic, considering the Europeans have already elected two openly gay people to run entire countries.
I think the debt thing should be the bigger deal.