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The 2014 Ontario Election Outcome: The Electoral Politics of Economic Transitions. Published in the Toronto Star, June 16th, 2014

June 13, 2014

Like many I was surprised at the strength of the Liberal victory in last night’s election (although attendees at the CPSA meeting two weeks ago will know I was predicting a Liberal majority – but I was expecting a more dramatic NDP collapse). Pre-election polls had suggested a virtual tie between Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals and Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives, and that a weakened minority was the best the Liberals might hope for.

The immediate interpretations have been that the PC’s lost by making themselves unelectable. Despite Wynne’s government being saddled by the McGuinty legacy of the gas plant cancellations, and the e-health and Ornge debacles, the PCs still couldn't win. Hudak’s million jobs plan was seen as a recipe for a return to the conflict and chaos of Mike Harris’ 1995 ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ It was a path that Ontarians overwhelmingly rejected as a response to the economic and social challenges facing the province.

For the NDP the outcome is almost as bad. The split in the NDP base over Andrea Horwath’s ‘pocketbook populism’ spilled out into the open. Urban progressives moved decisively in the direction of Kathleen Wynne, giving the Liberals victories in long-NDP-held ridings in downtown Toronto (Trinity-Spadina, Davenport and possibly the Beaches-East York), and producing tight races in others (Toronto Danforth and High Park). The NDP’s holds and few gains were concentrated in the economically distressed urban southwest, Niagara and the North.

Although failing to win any seats, the Greens did far better than expected in terms of their popular vote. Mike Schreiner’s party recovered to what have become its traditional levels of support (6-5%) from its dismal (3%) showing in 2011. This was despite strong pressures for strategic voting in favour of Liberals in the face of the PC’s platform’s outright hostility to environmental concerns. The Greens were again the class of the field in terms of their willingness to put new and serious ideas into their platform around energy, transit, the protection of prime farmland and governance issues.

The Liberals, to their credit, delivered a superbly executed campaign, which overcame the premier’s weak performance in the leaders’ debate.

An examination of the electoral map coming out of last night’s election tells a deeper story. It suggests that the election outcome is strongly tied to the playing out of the economic transitions that have been occurring the province since the mid-1970s, as the economy has shifted from its traditional manufacturing and resource extraction and processing base to one focussed on service and knowledge based sectors. That process has been accelerated dramatically through each of the 1982, 1993 and 2008 economic downturns.

Population and employment growth in the post-industrial economy has been strongly concentrated in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (particularly the City of Toronto, inner-905 region, Kitchener-Waterloo-Guelph, and Barrie), the Ottawa region, and a few other locations, all of which went strongly to the Liberals. In contrast the urban-industrial regions which have lost heavily in the transition (Windsor, Niagara, and Oshawa) went to the NDP, along with the North. Rural southern and central Ontario, also suffering badly in the transition, went almost uniformly to the PCs. The formulation of an agenda to address the economic, social and environmental needs of these regions will be central to the Liberals’ ability to sustain their majority through future elections.

In the eyes of many the outcome restores some faith in the electorate (there was even a moderate improvement in voter turnout relative to 2011), the importance of political memory and the centrality of the theme of moderation in Ontario’s political culture. Whatever the problems facing the province, more than 60 per cent of the electorate rejected the option of the PC’s hard right platform.

The election result presents the PCs with the most serious problems, leaving them as the party of rural southern and central Ontario disenfranchisement. In order to offer a viable alternative to the Liberals the party will have to moderate and move to the centre. It remains an open question whether, as TVO’s Steve Paiken put it last night, the party is “too old, too rural, too white and too male” to do so.

The problems facing the NDP are almost as large, as urban progressives and a large portion of the labour movement moved towards a party with whose leader they felt far more comfort - Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. The party’s role as the representative of the disenfranchised residents of the regions of southern Ontario and the North who have suffered the most in the province’s economic transitions should compel it to reflect more on substantive policy content than ‘pocketbook populism.’ Doing so will be essential if it has any hopes for recovering and expanding its base.

In terms of energy and environmental issues, while there may be a sigh of relief over the defeat of the PC’s radical agenda of budget cuts and deregulation, it is important to recall that the agenda left on the table by the Liberals was anything but strong.

The Wynne’s party owes a great deal of its success last night to younger and progressive voters in towns and cities, for whom urban, energy and environmental issues are of central importance. With the threat of a PC government removed, these voters, and the province’s organized environmental movement, can afford to push the Liberals much harder in these areas than they have over the past few years. Questions of seriously addressing climate change, providing long-term funding for transit investments, the wisdom of attempting to refurbish aging nuclear power plants, dealing with long-standing air, water and waste management problems, curbing urban sprawl and managing development in the North, all remain on the table and in need of urgent attention. It remains to be seen how the Liberals will apply their new mandate in these areas.