In the end, it wasn’t even close. After trading the lead in the polls with the opposition Progressive Conservatives for almost a year, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal govern- ment was easily re-elected in Ontario on October 10, taking 71 seats and 42 percent of the vote without breaking a sweat. John Tory’s PCs were limited to making only margin- al gains from their 2003 showing, increasing their seat count to 26, and the NDP was sent back to the legislature having been elected in only 10 constituencies.
It is easy to forget, however, that it wasn’t always sup- posed to be thus. For months, pundits and analysts alike were predicting a close-fought campaign, with a minority government " be it red or blue " emerging as the most likely option. But something happened on the way to the ballot box that turned a contest into a cakewalk for the incumbent premier.
Elections without an issue are a dangerous thing. Ask political operatives what makes a campaign successful, and the vast majority of them will list messaging and advertis- ing, fundraising and a good ground game as essential ingre- dients of a win, long before they say anything about policy or platform. But just as the 2006 federal election demonstrated the value of a clearly defined list of priorities, the 2007 Ontario election eloquently illustrated the danger for an opposition party of campaigning without a point of pol- icy differentiation from the government.
Early on, John Tory decided his point of differentiation was going to be competence, not ideology. Breaking with their recent Common Sense Revolution past, the Tories shunned striking policy differences with the Liberals and instead built their case for election on the issue of leadership. In contrast to Dalton McGuinty’s seemingly endless string of broken promis- es and unfulfilled commitments, John Tory’s word would be his bond. Specific policy commitments were kept to a minimum and emphasis was to be placed on approach and principle.
In the pre-writ period, the strategy seemed promising. John Tory consistently outperformed Dalton McGuinty in the public’s perception of who would make the best pre- mier, and the Progressive Conservatives were closing in on the Liberals in party preference. Local PC candidates, such as me in Ottawa-Orléans, were emboldened by the warm welcome at the doorstep, and the issue of leadership and broken promises was on its way to becoming the ballot question.
At their June convention, the Tories released their campaign platform, a 52-page document that listed policy pri- orities ranging from health care to the arts to rural economies to education. Taken together, the proposals provided voters with a good sense of the principles and approaches that would inform deci- sion-making in a John Tory government. They gave voters a sense of policy direction in the main areas of provincial activ- ity. But the sheer breadth and length of the document made it impossible to tease out what the actual priorities of a John Tory government would be.
Then, a policy proposal on the bottom of page 10 caught the atten- tion of the Liberal war room: ”œTake action to bring faith-based schools into the public system.” A campaign strategy built around an indictment of the McGuinty Liberals because of their record of broken promises would never be enough to withstand what was about to rain down on the Tories.
The Liberal response was brutally effective. Taking a page out of the Action démocratique du Québec strategy book, the Liberal ad campaign deliberately and successfully tapped into public unease over what accommodations were rea- sonable in a liberal democratic society and rode the wave to election day.
It would never matter that the PC proposal was aimed at 53,000 students out of a total of two million. It would never matter that, in exchange for public funds, these faith-based schools would cease to be private, teach the Ontario cur- riculum using certified teachers and take part in provincial testing. Nor would it matter that variations of the PC proposal were already par for the course in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Manitoba. By the time Dalton McGuinty entered the second week of the cam- paign, the dominant media frame around this issue had been set: Extending conditional public funding that is already made available to Catholic stu- dents to children of other faiths would be the end of Ontario as we know it.
At the door, the reaction was swift and final. To be sure, there were some who acknowledged the basic unfair- ness of extending funding to one faith group and not the others, but preferred to resolve that unfairness by eliminating funding for Catholics. ”œTwo wrongs don’t make a right,” they would say to me. Truth be told, from the point of view of policy coherence and equity, that position was a reason- able counter-argument to the PC pro- posal " and certainly eminently more defendable than the status quo.
But for a significant portion of the electorate, the objection clearly was to the idea of bringing certain faiths into the public realm. After hearing my by- then-well-rehearsed defence of our proposal, too many of my fellow citi- zens would reply with a variation on ”œI just don’t want my money going to those people.” As I walked back down the driveway and on to the next house, there was little doubt in my mind who ”œthose people” were.
Polling as they must have been on a nightly basis, the Liberals were surely aware of the existence of that strain of reaction to John Tory’s proposal. Knowing what they knew about the debate going on across the Ottawa River on accommodements raisonables, they must also have been aware of (and, I would have hoped, nervous about) the potential long-term effects of calling a reasonable policy proposal to treat Jews and Muslims as we do Catholics ”œsegre- gationist” and ”œdangerous.” But they chose to appeal to those sentiments in their advertising anyway, no matter the consequences. That, for me, was by far the single biggest disappointment of the campaign.
Despite the licking we took at the polls, largely as a result of our proposal, this candidate still believes the inequity of the status quo in education funding cannot be sustained over the long term, and that McGuinty’s ”œthe Constitution made me do it” defence is, at the very least, wanting. What is also clear, however, is that a change in poli- cy of that magnitude requires that citizens be brought along in the decision-making process. The table must be set well in advance of the elec- tion. Tory’s laudable desire to be upfront with voters notwithstanding, an election campaign may not be the appropriate context to introduce such complex issues. How often will Kim Campbell be proven right about that one, anyway?
By October 10, voters in Ontario went to the polls having heard very little about each party’s health care platform, fiscal and economic policies or education proposals outside faith-based schools. Without a clear list of priorities that made them different from the Liberals, the Tories were ill-equipped to counter when their priority was selected for them by their opponent. The Liberal war room decided faith-based schools would be the issue, and the PC war room didn’t have anything striking to offer up as an alternative and change the chan- nel. As a result, Dalton McGuinty may well be the first premier in the province’s history to win re-election without hav- ing to answer for his record.
If the PC proposal on faith-based schools quickly became the debate that wouldn’t go away, the referendum on electoral reform remained, until polls closed, the issue that never took off. While most voters with whom I met were at least tangentially aware that a referendum was being held, few knew what it was about and fewer still knew how they would vote.
In the end, in a choice between the current first-past-the-post system and a mixed-member proportional system, the status quo carried the day with 63 percent of the popular vote. Yet, if citi- zens are dissatisfied with the state of our democracy (and there is ample evi- dence, both scientific and anecdotal, that they are), and if changing the elec- toral system is the answer to making democracy more meaningful, why did so few voters take advantage of the opportunity to fix the system?
Some of the blame for the lack of support for MMP must be placed squarely at the feet of the Premier and the government. Having committed during the 2003 election to create a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform along the lines of what Premier Campbell had created in British Columbia and to put the question to a vote at the next election, there was no excuse for the government waiting so long to get the work of the assembly under way.
In British Columbia, electoral reform had been part of the public debate for some time. The Liberals had campaigned on their proposal while in opposition, and upon taking office, the Campbell government moved quickly to establish the citizens’ assembly. The assembly process received considerable media attention and the results were made pub- lic well in advance of the referendum. Yes and ”œNo” committees were established, and voters were given time and informa- tion to help them make a decision.
In contrast, the McGuinty govern- ment created the citizens’ assembly two years into its mandate without much fanfare. With a fixed election date fast approaching, the assembly’s delibera- tion period was shortened, and the pro- posed alternative was presented to the public in May 2007 " five short months before the vote. Citizens had neither the information nor the time to come to a decision on such a fundamentally important question. Going door to door during the summer and fall, I lost count of the number of citizens who expressed great frustration at being asked to change the electoral system without adequate information and who worried that it would pass without a real debate.
There is no question that some- thing in our democracy is broken. Voter turnout in 2007 plummeted to its low- est point in the postwar period. The fact that almost half of Ontario voters chose not to exercise their franchise this year has to raise alarms for even the most optimistic or complacent of observers. But one has to wonder whether the electoral system is the culprit. Are citi- zens declining their vote because of the manner in which we elect our represen- tatives? Is changing the mode of elec- tion the most promising way to increase turnout and engagement?
In my view, the answer is no. Electoral reform may eventually be an important part of a package of reforms that also includes making the legisla- ture more meaningful and connecting citizens to government between elec- tions. But as a standalone proposition, it is the wrong solution to a problem that still defies definition.
Having held the referendum with- out adequately preparing voters for the choice being put before them, Premier McGuinty compounded the problem the day after the election by declaring that the results showed the issue had now been dealt with. MMP may be dead, but the need to reinvigorate our democracy is not.
After spending the last 10 years in the field of public policy, as either a researcher or a political adviser, I was struck as a candidate by the degree to which direct contact with voters remains the main currency of politics.
Academics and other observers have been writing for a decade that the future of democracy is on the Internet. On the campaign trail, I found some- thing completely different. The future of democracy is still at the doorstep.
Online communications are essen- tial tools in support of more conven- tional modes of engagement " allowing candidates to refer voters to more information easily and allowing citizens to inform themselves on their own time " but they are not a substi- tute for face-to-face contact and are not likely to become one in the short term.
Citizens live busy lives. Between work, getting the kids to school or day- care, soccer practice, piano lessons, groceries and chores, they have little time to devote to politics. But when given half a chance, they ask good and hard questions. They know the issues, and they know their preferences. And they are not shy about giving candi- dates a piece of their mind.
The problem is that citizens feel cut out of politics by the artifice of legisla- tive proceedings and the cynicism of political debate. For most of them, it is not that they cannot determine a preference among parties; it is that they have decided that their preference is ”œnone of the above.” Reforming the electoral sys- tem will not, in and of itself, change that. Until political parties, leaders and candidates say something meaningful, tinkering with the mechanics of the sys- tem will be just that, tinkering.
Having now been a candidate, I understand just how hollow that will ring to individuals involved in poli- tics. Finding something meaningful to say is no easy task, and actually saying it in the course of a campaign is that much more difficult. John Tory’s proposals to bring other faiths into our public school system or to allow patients to use their health cards at private clinics when they cannot get timely access to care within the public system were easily shot down by facile bumper sticker slogans that urged voters to ”œsave our schools” and ”œsave our publicly funded health care sys- tem.” And who can blame the Liberals? Theirs was the classic ”œsay nothing, do nothing and blow up the other guy” cam- paign. And, as it turns out, slogans beat ideas 71 to 26. Thank you next caller.
The long-term effect is more trou- bling. Why would an opposition leader dare to propose something bold in 2011? Should John Tory lead the Progressive Conservatives into the next election (and this candidate certainly hopes that he does), will he tackle the difficult issues as he did this year? One would understand if he didn’t, but that would certainly not be in the interest of democracy. The great policy advances of the last many decades started out as controversies: universal health care, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, free trade. What will happen to the next person who has a big idea?
More than the electoral system, the standing orders of our legis- latures and parliaments, the future of the Senate or citizen engagement, this is what ails our democracy: there is no real opportunity for meaningful debate. If we draw one lesson from the faith-based schools debacle, I hope it is this: voters pay attention when they have a reason to. Until we find a way to allow our representatives to say something real, it won’t much matter who says it, where they say it and how they got the right to say it. Admittedly, it is the toughest nut to crack, but until we do, other reforms to our democracy will have a marginal impact at best.
There is no greater privilege than to earn the right to represent one’s fellow citizens and ensure their interests, needs and priorities are reflected in those of the government. Having studied, debated and designed public policy options at 30,000 feet for the last 10 years, there could have been no better reality check for me " no richer experience " than to spend three months at the doorstep, take questions and explain a policy platform one citizen at a time. Without a doubt, it is an advantage for a candidate to have a firm foundation in policy development. Now I know that is a two-way street. It should be required training for policy researchers and decision-makers to can- vass a neighbourhood on behalf of a candidate for election " at least once. There is no better way, perhaps no other way, to make politics and policy as human as it needs to be to be effective. After all, those citizens are supposed to be the reason we do what we do.