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The Ontario Election, the Environment and the Economy – Updated October 11, 2011

The run-up to the October 2011 Ontario election was defined by a strong and long-standing lead by Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives. Polls over the summer of 2011 consistently gave the Progressive Conservatives margins in excess of ten per cent over the Liberals, and there were projections of strong PC majority government. Right wing-populist Rob Ford’s victory in the November 2010 City of Toronto mayoralty race and the strong showing of the federal Conservatives in Ontario in the May 2011 federal election reinforced expectations of a Progressive Conservative win at the provincial level.

Election night on October 6th yielded a very different result. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals were re-elected as a minority government, with 53 seats, just one seat short of a majority. The Liberals received 37.6 per cent of the popular vote, putting them two per cent ahead of the PCs, who obtained 35.4 per cent of the vote and gained 37 seats. Andrea Horwath’s NDP made a strong showing with nearly 23 per cent of the vote, giving 17 seats. Green Party support, on the other hand, collapsed badly, with the party receiving less than three per cent of the popular vote and at 127,000 votes, little more than a third of the total vote it received in 2007. The Liberals and the NDP dominated in urban areas and the north, while PC support was concentrated in rural southern and central Ontario. The election saw the lowest voter turnout in Ontario history, at 49.2 per cent.

The Liberals, who ran a solid, consistent and largely-error free campaign, benefitted from a series of PC misfortunes and mistakes. The inability of Toronto Mayor Ford to find the promised “gravy” of wasteful spending at city hall and consequent proposals for profound and deeply unpopular cuts to city services in midst of provincial election campaign, along with a hopelessly ill-considered proposal to abandon well-advanced plans for revitalization of the city’s waterfront, did serious damage to the provincial PC effort. The situation in Toronto came be to perceived as foretaste, particularly in the city itself, of what a Hudak government, running on a platform very similar to Ford’s approach to the November 2010 Toronto election, might look like at the provincial level. In the result, the PCs failed to win a single one of the City of Toronto’s 22 seats in the legislature on election night.

PC leader Tim Hudak’s attacks, principally in response to a Liberal proposal for a modest tax credit for workers new to Canada, on “foreign workers” further undermined his party’s fortunes. The leader’s statements invited suggestions of racial intolerance on the part of the PCs. The effect was to push new Canadian and moderate voters away from the Tories, particularly in the crucial 905 region surrounding the City of Toronto, with its large population of first generation immigrants to Canada, denying the PCs any gains in the region.

Other factors worked against Tories as well. The outcomes of the 2010 Toronto municipal and 2011 federal elections prompted concerns over the possibility of a Conservative “trifecta” in Ontario at federal, provincial and municipal levels. There was also disquiet, particularly in urban areas, over the enthusiastic embrace of themes of the US Republican “tea party” movement by rural branches of the Ontario PC Party.

NDP, for its part, moved in a decidedly populist/materialist direction, proposing the removal of the HST from electricity, natural gas and gasoline prices as the centrepiece of its campaign. The party’s platform contained a number of important environmental elements, including opposition to new nuclear construction or refurbishment projects, a renewed focus on energy efficiency, increased transit funding, anti-SLAPP legislation, addressing the impact of the government’s ‘open for business’ initiative on the Environmental Bill of Rights, continued participation in the Western Climate Initiative, and action on waste management. However, the HST proposal, commitments to terminate the FIT program under the Green Energy Act and turn renewable energy development over to a resurrected Ontario Hydro, and an enthusiastic embrace of resource development in the far north led to suggestions that the party was wavering in its traditional support for environmental issues. Given the apparent electoral success of the NDP’s “pocketbook populist” approach and its gains in northern Ontario, the future positioning of the party on environmental matters may become increasingly contentious.

The Greens’ poor showing reflected the party’s struggle for space throughout the campaign. New leader Mike Schreiner put in a respectable performance, and the Greens again presented perhaps the most interesting platform of all of the major parties, including proposals for a modest carbon tax and a detailed strategy for sustainable agriculture and food. Unfortunately for Greens, the party found itself a victim of the overall eclipsing of the environment by economic concerns, with little more than three per cent of voters identifying environmental and energy problems as leading issues in the campaign.

Moreover, the Greens were squeezed by the Liberals’ emphasis on their Green Energy Act, especially its role in job creation and the risks of a PC government repealing the legislation. At the same time, the Greens received little benefit from the NDP’s shakiness on environmental issues, and were unable to exploit the Liberals’ inconsistencies on the environmental front, such as their continuing commitment, notwithstanding the Green Energy Act, to an electricity system that is 50 per cent nuclear in a post-Fukishima world. The situation was in part a result of the Green Party undermining own its appeal among voters seriously engaged on environmental issues. Such voters might have been put off by the Liberals’ inconsistencies and NDP’s vacillation on the environment, but may have found the elements of the Greens’ platform intended to attract anti-wind, anti-greenbelt and anti-source water protection voters in rural Ontario equally unappealing.

The Greens’ failures were perhaps even more surprising given that the Liberals presented a platform that was remarkably thin on new commitments on the environment and energy fronts. A vague promise to expand the greenbelt, an option first presented in the party’s 2007 platform, was the only new element. The remainder of the platform focused on past achievements and the continuation of existing initiatives like the Green Energy Act, transit funding and mining development in the far north. There have been suggestions that local opposition to Green Energy Act-inspired wind energy projects cost the Liberals a number rural seats, including those of environment minister John Wilkinson and agriculture minister Leona Dombrowsky. There is little hard evidence to support that hypothesis, and it is also likely that the Liberals’ strong focus on the legislation strengthened their appeal among younger voters.

The government seems likely to treat its re-election as an endorsement of its current path on the energy file. However, the divergence between those plans and the facts of the likely continuing decline in electricity demand, the uncertain availability and costs of nuclear projects, and the growing investments in green energy may hit sooner rather than later. Nuclear projects, aspects of the Green Energy Act and energy conservation efforts all have the potential to be victims in the resulting fallout.

The province’s fiscal situation means that the possibility of a serious financial retrenchment cannot be ruled out, even if the government’s narrow electoral success leaves it tempted to continue with its facilitative and managerial orientation. In reality, neither approach is likely to provide an effective response to the serious environmental and economic stresses now facing Ontario. The decline of the US market for Ontario’s exports, the difficulties for export-oriented value-added economic activities posed by a rising Canadian dollar driven by resource exports from western Canada, the regional impacts of climate change, the rural/urban split evident in the outcome of the 2011 election and the need to recover Toronto’s role as the anchor of the Greater Golden Horseshoe and as an emerging global city all present tests that will require vision and leadership as well as managerial competence. It remains to be seen whether Premier McGuinty’s renewed government will be able to meet those challenges.

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