When they called this election, few cared and fewer came. What is going on? Not since 1923 have so few Ontarians bothered to vote. For the first time nearly a majority of citizens said ”œnone of the above” ”” 47.2 percent voted with their feet. In fact, it was 22 percent of Ontarians that gave Dalton McGuinty his two-thirds seat majority. Not that it should have been a surprise. This was the most soporific election in almost as long a time. One would have to reach back to post-war Ontario to find a more somnolent campaign, to the days when Leslie Frost wandered the fall fairs spinning homi- lies about strong families and good roads to win three majorities in a row.

Perhaps it was the foolishness of a fixed-term election date, a carbuncle on the body of a parliamentary democracy. It had been anticipated so long that even the parties failed to do the usual rhetorical ramp-up and activist mobilization of a pre-election period. It was a lovely long hot summer. The electorate was not thrilled with the government, unimpressed by its leader, but underwhelmed by the available options.

A visiting foreigner could be excused for failing to see signs that the citizenry were in the midst of a wrenching economic transition and, according to analysts, on the cusp of a wrenching recession. That they were in the midst of choosing a new government was almost invisible until the closing days. Lost pet stories often trumped election coverage in small-town dailies. The Liberals were reduced to buying a front-page endorsement from one of the Toronto throwaway com- muter papers to get attention.

Why voters were so sanguine was, on the surface, a puz- zle. Consider: Ontario

  • is rapidly running out of electricity, a crisis for which no party had a credible answer;

  • has endured two years of the smoggiest, most heavily polluted days in every major city;

  • is facing the most punishing round of public sector strikes in a decade within months ”” as teachers, nurses and public servants line up to test a famously strike-shy government;

  • has dropped to last in child poverty and post-secondary education funding stats;

  • faces a middle-class property tax revolt postponed only by the promise of unlikely government relief; has a manufacturing economy in serious decline, with the auto sec- tor suffering its first trade imbal- ance in a generation;

  • watches its economic engine and political capital, Toronto, facing a half-billion-dollar deficit next spring; and on and on.

The political elite’s slap in the face by Ontario voters should not have been surprising. This was an insulting campaign free of vision or new ideas. Each party merely recycled policy planks that had been around for years, in some cases decades.

Now novelty in politics is not all, and some issues never go away, but this is a new century with a gener- ation of voters raised on a new set of stimuli and issues. Voters raised on the wide frontiers of personal choice, immediate wiki proofs, precisely tai- lored products and service delivered instantly by the Net are too savvy to be seduced by a politician offering better transit ”” 15 years from now. They are too suspicious of institutional claims of loyalty by church and employer, let alone political parties or governments, to respond to blather such as ”œGet Orange” ”” New Democrats’ peculiar appeal. Progressive Conservative leader John Tory, despite the Liberal war room brats’ attempt to tag him as ”œRichie Rich” is the leader with the closest per- sonal engagement with youth causes and exposure to the bitterness of urban poverty. He had an opportunity to turn that connection into a powerful politi- cal message and didn’t.

After the overheated rhetoric and ferocious partisan assaults of the Peterson/Rae/Harris years, Ontario’s political leaders appeared determined to bore the electorate into submission. There were occasional eruptions of partisan attack, usually tied to evoca- tions of the good old days of blood sport politics.

In British Columbia visitors are often bewildered by the ritual damna- tion of the politicians long gone, some- times even dead. Dave Barrett, premier three decades ago, and W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett, dead nearly as long, are still regularly blamed for current ills by angry socialists and sulky conservatives.

At their most lustful, good grey Ontario politicians are no competition for the political fireworks of Canada’s left coast, but they are acquiring the same ”œback-to-the-future” weakness. The sins of the Harris government were featured in creepy Fox-News-style ”œreality TV” ads from the Liberal war room, complete with ”œarrest photos” of the former premier. (Harris was elected 12 years ago, in another centu- ry.) The Tory campaign used a rolling text ad with a similarly hideous photo of the Premier. Perhaps the ad gurus’ theory is that unflattering photos are more powerful political ammunition than dumb policy?

Not to be outdone, newspaper pun- dits regularly blamed Bill Davis for John Tory’s faith-based schools nightmare. (Davis was elected when the current pre- mier was an unremarkable student at Ottawa’s St. Patrick Catholic High School, and retired 22 years ago in 1985.)

NDP leader Howard Hampton attacked the current premier, the for- mer premier and long-ago premiers Peterson and his former boss, Bob Rae.

At a time when the province is los- ing its manufacturing base at the fastest rate since the Great Depression, a stranger listening to Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty would think he had landed in Lotusland. Several times a day, the Premier would recite statistics demonstrating record spending on schools, record numbers of hips replaced and record numbers of cops, nurses, teachers and rodent inspec- tors hired. It all had an ”œAnother Record Cuban Sugar Cane Harvest!” quali- ty about it.

Their advertising guru admitted that the boredom was intentional, bragging to confidants that their strate- gy was to ”œsleepwalk the voters to another majority.”

It worked like a treat, and then they got an assist from God. The National Post cartoonist framed the outcome perfectly the morning after: Dalton McGuinty, hands raised in rapture, shouting, ”œThank you, Jesus!”

The story of religion in schools is as close as the province comes to pas- sion in politics. While Ontario has never risked the civil conflict to which the ”œSchools Question” nearly drove Manitoba, anti-popery is close to the surface in Ontario to this day. What was more surprising and depressing was how close to the surface lay an eas- ily provoked anti-Muslim itch.

The combination of Church of England United Empire Loyalists, Ulster Orangemen and various Low Church Protestants nearly scuppered Confederation over the issue. They yielded grudgingly to a typically Canadian subtle and complex consti- tutional deal at the London Conference of 1866. The issue faded throughout the 20th century until the government decided to extend Catholic school funding to the end of high school. Bill Davis’s decision in 1984 to extend the terms of that origi- nal deal contributed to the defeat of his successor the following year, and left a time bomb for his successors.

One of the side deals between Bob Rae and David Peterson that permitted Peterson’s minority government to be installed was the implementation of Catholic school funding. Behind the scenes in every caucus, members were heavily divided about the commitment. Angry words were exchanged between long-time friends among New Democrat, Liberal and Conservative MPPs. A harsh counter-attack lead by radio shock jocks and a strange combination of the ”œSons of Orange,” leftist public school advo- cates and teachers’ unionists badly rat- tled the political establishment. The political leadership prevailed, but through threats and coercion more than persuasion in the end. The issue went to bed for another decade.

The Conservatives unwisely re- opened it first in the Harris years with a promise to extend funding to private and faith-based schools using the tax system. This ”œeducation choice” option, championed by then treasurer Jim Flaherty, opened all the same wounds over again. His successor as premier, Ernie Eves, dropped the idea but the seeds of a new battle had been sown. In a subsequent leadership con- test three years ago John Tory prom- ised to find a way of funding faith-based schools. The commitment got little attention at the time.

By this spring, Ontario Conservatives with a respect for the province’s history, such as Toronto professor Michael Bliss, were warning John Tory of the campaign land mine he had laid for himself. Tory felt strongly that he could not back down on his commitment, as it was central to his vision of inclusiveness, and because he had given his word to the community leaders involved.

His advisers’ opinion research failed to signal how damaging a promise it could become. They did not simulate how ably the McGuinty war room would be able to torque the issue into a Canadian version of Nixon’s racist Southern strategy. Asked about the fail- ures after the election, campaign direc- tor and pollster John Laschinger refused to comment. Similar phone interviews by pollster Greg Lyle also failed to cau- tion his client, the Canadian Jewish Congress, what a disaster the issue would be if the Liberals decided to torque it into a ballot question.

And torque it they did ”” hammer- ing Tory every day from the beginning to the end of the campaign. Using code language about race and open threats about the risks to Ontario’s security, the highly effective Liberal dirty tricks team got the province enraged. The same gang that humiliated Stockwell Day in 2000 with dinosaur dolls con- jured the prospect of immigrants with strange religions and foreign tongues ”œripping the heart out” of the public school system, bleeding it of desperate- ly needed funds.

For months in advance of the cam- paign they fed reporters with anony- mous quotes about ”œunhappy Conservatives” and supplied YouTube with nasty videos and their canvassers with slippery doorstep lines. As the dam- age to Tory began to show up in public polls, they raised the pressure with egre- gious performances by Dalton McGuinty fretting about creating a ”œsegregationist” Ontario, and suggesting that Ontario would suffer the same fate as ”œLondon and Paris” if the policy were adopted. In a clear appeal to Islamophobia they suc- cessfully ground the Conservative num- bers down by nearly ten points in less than three weeks. At Toronto dinner par- ties one heard ”œprogressive” downtown Liberals muttering quietly that Tory’s policy would fund ”œsome crazy imam’s Mississauga madrassa.”

While the episode was admittedly devastat- ing to the Tory campaign, and an impressive example of the power of vicious campaign tactics, it was troubling to watch a ”œpro- gressive” Canadian politi- cian indulging in ethnic politics rarely seen in Canada. John Tory had never appropriately battle- tested his commitment, as he was forced into uncomfortable generalities when challenged about who would qualify and how.

The salt in the wound for Conservatives was a regular complaint by the Liberal leader that John Tory was ”œbeing negative” in regularly dubbing him a ”œpromise-breaker,” a demonstra- bly unassailable charge to which McGuinty had many times confessed.

The Liberal campaign may have laid a hostage to fortune for the government. The campaign was especially enraging to those Ontario Liberals from the commu- nities being so casually slurred by the party. Two Jewish cabinet ministers expressed their reservations to the Premier’s Office directly, nervous about reaction in a community that had been safely Liberal provincially for generations.

The tactic did hit Liberal support in Ontario’s influential Jewish community. It probably helped Tory marginally in some Muslim, Sikh and evangelical Christian communities, but even they were divided by the issue. The Conservatives elected one prominent radio personality, Peter Shurman, in a largely Jewish community, north of Toronto. It was small recompense for the damage done everywhere else. 

The irony is that Tory’s policy was, in part, a poorly articulated effort to begin to control the unregulated growth in religious schools that already live entirely outside any super- vision. Few voters knew that in Ontario setting up ”œThe Ahmadinejad Holocaust Deniers High” was a snap, and that some very curious schools had long existed in the province. Indeed, members of the Iranian Canadian community claim that the hated imams in their former home were already secretly funding schools in the province. Tory’s hope was that when offered financial support, most schools would accept inspections, an approved curriculum and licensed teachers. It seems likely that a subse- quent step would have been to make such supervision mandatory.

All that got heard was that Conservatives were going to take money from ”œour public schools” and give it to brown-skinned Muslims to teach hate.

Like the ”œSwift Boat” tactics that demolished the John Kerry campaign ”” twist a lie into a credible campaign attack and then hammer it endlessly in speeches and advertising ”” the Liberal campaign was remorseless and effec- tive. They successfully painted Tory as a naive champion of ”œprivate religious interests” over the public good.

The three leaders were curious rep- resentatives of their political tribes. Until recently, Dalton McGuinty looked and sounded like the sort of politically hopeless, small-town United Church minister that New Democrats were famous for recruiting. Having been rigorously retooled by media trainers of the ”œsay less, but say it over and over” school, he emerged in this campaign sounding more like the Manchurian candidate than a sea- soned premier. His endless repetition of Hallmark slogans such as ”œMoving Forward Together” and ”œWe Are Ontario” were apparently effective.

Howard Hampton is the acciden- tal leader of the hapless New Democrats. Chosen by the party in a fit of anti-Rae sentiment more than a decade ago, he has taken the party to lows not seen since the 1950s. As in his two previous stillborn campaigns, his was an old-fashioned and defensive message. As one of his advisers said somewhat despairingly, ”œWe are reduced to a ”˜saviour’ campaign: save medicare, save the North, save our schools. When you are always trying to hold on to what you’ve got, you’re always going to be pushed onto the defensive.”

Though he tried to make the most of a modest increase in popular vote, in his post-cam- paign analysis, the reality is that Hampton has led the party to an increasingly narrow base of aging support. They came out with the same number of MPPs as they went into the campaign with. The Greens took votes from all three parties, but their ”œyoung and cool” protest pos- ture is most damaging to the New Democrats’ former com- petitiveness for that image.

A massive NDP refit and renewal exercise is now well past urgent, starting with a leadership change. But drafting even a ”œrock star” new leader without revamping the party’s tired brand and ”˜60s platform will not stop the rot. Even a party loyal- ist such as Dave Cooke, a senior minis- ter in the Rae government and lifelong New Democrat, appealed to the party to seize the post-election review period to make big changes, or else.

The path forward is not hard to find. A night on Google, clipping pages from the Web sites of most of the successful social democratic parties in the rest of the Western world, would by itself catapult the party forward a cou- ple of decades. A serious outreach to the best Canadian and international thinkers on social inclusion, sustain- able growth and a progressive innova- tion agenda could make the party into a serious contender for government again. Part of the problem remains that for many Ontario New Democrats, the experience of power was so painful they would really rather not return.

The challenge for the Conservatives is similar, if not quite as grim. Whether John Tory decides to remain or not, their appeal and dis- tinctiveness as a political choice is also not entirely clear. A return to Harrisite policy is not an option for a party seri- ous about power ”” that hard-edged response to the mess bequeathed by the Peterson/Rae era will not sell today. Even the social conservative activist core of the Harper coalition recognizes that those days are now gone ”” at least until the next crisis makes normally centrist Canadians willing to adopt such a painful agenda.

John Tory is the most attractive leader that the party has had since Bill Davis: none of the corrosive edge of a Mike Harris, lots of the gravitas that grounded the most successful Conservative leaders in the golden years. But he has a whiff of ”œyesterday’s man” as a result, despite having been around for only three years as leader. A warm glad-handing style risks being seen as a patrician son of privilege soothing the masses. Despite having raised more money for more worthy causes, done more to heal community divisions and been more proactive for years on the race and poverty front than either McGuinty or Hampton, to the casual observ- er he looks like many other middle-aged white politicians in a pinstriped suit. The name is not an asset in many circles of liberal Ontario to boot.

The slightly right-of-centre social policy space occupied so successfully by 50 years of Ontario Red Tories is now filled by the Liberals, who are big on family, and responsibility, and public safety ”” if only in their spin. The economic space in the centre is certainly open for com- petition given that the Liberals have so signally failed at staunching the bleeding in the agricultural, resource and manu- facturing sectors, or at pointing out the path to a successful post- industrial economy. Success for a creative new innovation and economic stimulus message presupposes that voters care. This election would seem to indicate that they do not, yet. The ”œnational” card may offer some hope for a politician with credentials such as Tory’s. He is a veteran of Bill Davis’s careful positioning of the province as the benevolent economic engine and political flywheel of the nation. It’s almost hard to recall the days when Ontario could be counted on to ”œsquare the circle” between western and Quebec demands at first ministers’ tables, the time when its security as a perennial number one allowed it to sup- port apparently generous national social and economic transfers.

The province has fallen far in the national league tables since those days. It’s not credible for Queen’s Park to match Alberta’s or even British Columbia’s largesse in infrastructure spending today. But Ontario has fallen to the level of the poorest provinces in several key indices, including the crucial productivity and innovation stimulator, post- secondary education funding. Roads, hospitals and schools are still in Third World states of repair in many smaller communities and poorer neigh- bourhoods, despite a small uptick in Liberal spending over four years.

Some friends of the Conservative Party pleaded with Tory advisers to adopt a ”œWe’ll make Ontario number one. Again” appeal, touching their his- tory of government success and Ontario’s famous arrogance simultane- ously. Tory played with the message in the debate and elsewhere but failed to give it the serious attention it would have needed to take off.

An opposition campaign that con- trasted Ontario’s sad performance against other provinces’ could be the death of a thousand cuts for McGuinty’s credibility: ”œDid you know that your grandma would wait half as long for her new hip in PEI as she had to in Picton? Aren’t you embarrassed our students score worse on their math tests than Canadian kids in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick? Did you know that in Ontario we recy- cle less of our garbage than every one of the Atlantic provinces?” Etc.

The success of the Green Party across the province, taking votes from all three parties and nearly electing its first politician anywhere in the coun- try, suggests another option for any of the three major parties. Demonstrating real leadership in this arena would probably motivate a cadre of new voters, secure the loyalty of young voters and fend off a chal- lenge to the party base.

Each party has good reasons not to make the kinds of changes neces- sary to be seen as serious. For New Democrats, it’s union intransigence and northern resource communities, for Conservatives, it’s small business and small government activists, and for Liberals it’s fear of the reaction of all of the above. Making Ontario the number one environmental innovator could be a political vision that touches several of the province’s hot buttons simultaneously. However, there is a shadow on the horizon for all of the parties, and especially for the govern- ing Liberals.

The province is now long overdue for a serious recession.

Not since David Peterson was spooked into calling an early election in the summer of 1990 have the eco- nomic portents looked so gloomy for the province. The province has bub- bled along on several economic fronts for more than a decade: auto sales, construction and commodity industry servicing. Each appears to be threat- ened for the first time in many years.

This year Ontario slipped into deficit in auto parts and vehicle export revenue. It is blessed to have a strong and growing Asian auto manufacturing sector, but that cannot offset the secular slide of the Big Three American manu- facturers. In addition, the huge advantage that weak Canadian dollars and horrific US health costs represented for our car plants have both disappeared at the same time. GM and Chrysler have each passed their retirees’ health costs to their unions, and the Canadian dollar is now a 4 to 5 percent additional cost ”” from a 25 percent advantage two years ago ”” for every vehicle assembled here.

Housing starts have remained strong in Ontario so far, but exports of lumber and other construc- tion inputs to the US have been savaged by their credit crisis and our dollar. Economists are already wringing their hands about the impact of Ontario homebuyers losing their enthusiasm to go deeper into debt for a new home. Government infrastructure spending could offset some of the predicted decline in housing and the still weak commercial sector, but only the federal government is flush and it is unlikely to favour spending on shovels in Ontario. The province’s health is, ironically, likely to be propped up for some time by commodity prices. Although the coal, oil, uranium, diamonds, trees and water ”” Canada’s clichéd ”œrocks and logs” economy ”” are primarily based elsewhere, the financing and industry servicing benefits flow disproportion- ately to Ontario. Few economists see the global boom in commodity prices running out of steam soon, but even a small dip in US demand could be severe for Canadians, as we are now much higher-cost producers.

As the Rae government discov- ered, a serious recession in Ontario, especially one driven by a post- presidential-election decline in the US, can hurtle downhill with sickening speed. The provincial government’s levers to brake the decline are weaker today than they were 17 years ago, and they didn’t work then.

The McGuinty government had a mostly bump-free first term, coasting first on the decimation of the NDP as opposition and the Tories’ leadership battles, then on the cash thrown off by the booming Ontario economy. The bumpy ride that is sure to be the sec- ond term starts with labour negotia- tions with hundreds of thousands of public employees later this year.

Following the time-honoured approach of Liberal and Conservative governments in the province ”” spend enough immediately on the loudest prob- lems to reduce their volume, promise a lot more a lot later ”” McGuinty was able to stall a day of reckoning on transit, on infrastructure and on cities.

To govern is to choose, however, especially when the revenues flatline or fall. As the Rae government discov- ered, government revenues fall much faster in a downturn than expendi- tures can be cut. In a province with a $556.3 billion GDP in 2006 and a provincial expenditure of $90 billion, an accumulated surplus of $2.3 billion is 2.6 percent of expenditure, equiva- lent to two cases of beer a month to the average Ontario wage earner. It may appear like a lot of money but it’s a trivial bulwark against a recession.

Hard times require tough gov- ernment decisions. There is probably little appetite among Ontario voters to run up the provincial deficit by the tens of billions required to try to ease the pain of a downturn for its most vulnerable victims, older laid- off workers and their families. There is even less willingness among glob- al creditors to be so helpful except at punishing interest rates. The brick wall that Ontario Treasurer Greg Sorbara could be skidding toward before the end of winter is the need to find billions of dollars in discretionary expenditure cuts, fast. There is little in their record to give one hope that this is a challenge that the McGuinty government is up to meeting. This is the team, after all, whose first choice when faced with the perennial demand of the health system for more money was to break a promise not to raise taxes. The next four years were marked by avoidance, denial and delay as deci- sion-making styles.

Churchill once unfairly character- ized Britain’s formidable post-war prime minister, Clement Attlee, as a ”œmodest man with a great deal to be modest about.” But Attlee confounded critics, laid the foundation of the British welfare state, completed the withdrawal from Empire and begin to rebuild the war-ravaged British economy.

He was a skinny, balding, physical- ly unbecoming political leader, with an unfortunate grin. His oratory was painful to endure, with a glad-handing style that was forced and embarrassing to observe. He went on to make the hardest decisions in a government in crisis, after a career as a political vacilla- tor. Maybe McGuinty has a role model. 

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