The virtual obliteration of the Liberals in Toronto and its suburban communities was the product of consistent, robust and strategic top-down messaging from a Conservative campaign that had great appeal to the changing values of its new diverse communities and their more conservative leanings.
The old liberal “Fortress Toronto” fell on election day, and the sweep of suburban ridings by the Conservatives continued. Only a single Liberal, John McCallum, managed to hang on in the 905 suburban belt around the city. And the vaunted NDP surge barely touched these vast (and growing) vote-rich communities, where the Conservatives swept 21 of 22 seats. In the city of Toronto, where the Conservatives hadn’t won a seat since 1988, they won 9, while the NDP won 8, and the Liberals were reduced to 6 seats in the 416 area.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact or long-term importance of this Conservative landslide in an area that was once totally dominated by the Big Red Machine. While the Toronto media bemoaned the ignominious fate of highprofile Liberals like Leader Michael Ignatieff, Joe Volpe, Mark Holland, Gerard Kennedy, Martha Hall Findlay and Ken Dryden, almost no attention has been paid to why it happened, and how this dramatic turnaround in Canada’s financial and business capital may or may not affect the shape of national politics.
Make no mistake, this sweep was the victory of clear messaging and tactics over specific urban political issues. It was also the result of Stephen Harper repeatedly visiting key ridings like Brampton-Springdale, where Ruby Dhalla went down to defeat by Parm Gill, and Eglinton-Lawrence, where Jim Flaherty went on numerous occasions, accompanied by his old friend the new mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. In a highly covered race, 23-year veteran Joe Volpe was handed his walking papers by the tireless, high-profile lawyer Joe Oliver.
It is worth taking a closer look at these two ridings to uncover the elements of victory. In Oliver’s case, the win came from very specific and effective voter targeting, particularly of the Jewish and multicultural communities. Oliver, himself a leader in the Jewish community, benefited from Harper’s strong support for Israel, and by the wellcommunicated fear of higher taxes, reinforced by Harper’s warnings in the dying days of the campaign about the potential NDP surge.
In fact, in CPAC coverage of his campaign, Oliver emphasized how important the core messages of stability and values from Harper were in his campaign. The Conservative campaign mantra of “vote values” proved very effective in wooing votes from an immigrant community identified as generally more “conservative” than Liberal. It has also become a truism that however attentive Liberal MPs like Volpe were to the “ethnic” communities, the tireless work of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has paid off.
This factor is doubly true in Brampton-Springdale, with its high proportion of Sikhs and other South Asians. The Liberal incumbent, Bollywood beauty Ruby Dhalla, echoed Ignatieff’s positioning of the so-called “ethnic” vote by repeating the mantra that these communities wanted to be treated as “Canadians,” not “ethnics.” But there is a certain hypocrisy in these communities. While they strive to be accepted as fully Canadian and say they don’t want special treatment, they quite normally love the attention — and in the last few years they got lots of it: from Conservatives such as Jason Kenney and from the Prime Minister himself.
It’s also accepted wisdom that the Liberals have not put out such a welcome or focused efforts on these communities as they did in the Trudeau era, and to a lesser extent in the Martin years.
That the Liberal appeal to diverse communities has waned is also a generational and demographic issue. In the heyday of Joe Volpe and of the so-called “Italian Mafia” on Parliament Hill, which included the likes of Tony Ianno, Maurizio Bevilacqua and John Nunziata, gratitude for Trudeau’s multicultural and immigration policies prevailed. First generation Italian and Portuguese immigrants were loyal to the party that welcomed them to Canada. No longer. The well-educated and successful second generation have little desire to follow their parents, and most voted Conservative — reelecting, for example, former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino in Vaughan north of the city. Ironically, multilingual Mario Silva, of Portuguese descent, was defeated by an NDP musician, Andrew Cash, in Toronto’s Davenport.
If the Conservative victory means the decline of the Trudeau idea of multiculturalism in Canada’s most diverse city, and the appropriation of new waves of more prosperous immigrants by the Conservatives, what does it portend for “Liberalism”? Toronto has been its spiritual home since the Pearson era.
There is little doubt that however “liberal” was Michael Ignatieff’s generous “Family Pack” or his harping on opportunity and equality, these values had little appeal for Toronto and Greater Toronto Area (GTA) voters this time around. Perhaps, though, this was not so much the defeat of Liberal ideas as the success of a masterful Conservative campaign.
In a strategic master stroke the Conservatives buried the confused and sometimes confusing Liberal message in an appeal for continued economic recovery and low taxes, so tightly and universally scripted and pronounced by all candidates that it sold and sold and sold.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact or long-term importance of this Conservative landslide in an area that was once totally dominated by the Big Red Machine. While the Toronto media bemoaned the ignominious fate of high-profile Liberals like Leader Michael Ignatieff, Joe Volpe, Mark Holland, Gerard Kennedy, Martha Hall Findlay and Ken Dryden, almost no attention has been paid to why it happened.
And it continued to sell on election night. In my own riding north of Toronto — Oak Ridges-Markham, the Conservative winner, Paul Calandra, eschewed any reference to local issues in his victory speech, defaulting to the national campaign slogan of “making sure the economy stays strong and taxes stay low.” Chris Alexander, the personable and articulate former ambassador to Afghanistan, who trounced Mark Holland in Ajax-Pickering east of Toronto, also echoed the campaign mantra in his victory speech: “I think, honestly, it means the economy matters to people. The anxiety is still there.” A message that was carefully crafted by the national campaign.
So there is an argument that Conservative success in the GTA was a victory of tactics over substance or political ideology. But not quite. It should be noted that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a true conservative if there ever was one, took the unprecedented move for a city leader of supporting Harper, vocally and by appearing at Toronto-area Conservative campaign rallies.
The growing perception among the chattering classes that the new Toronto is more conservative than the old, which started with Ford’s convincing municipal win, is hard to counter. Of course eight NDP members from Toronto will go to Ottawa, including the first family of the left, Leader Jack Layton and his wife, Olivia Chow.
But Toronto Liberal voices are virtually silenced, and recreating the Liberal consensus, which drove national politics in this area for so long, will be a daunting challenge. The impact of a rightward swing may even be wider. The Liberal Dalton McGuinty government in Ontario watched the results with understandable anxiety, as it faces a provincial test in the fall.
Finally, does the sweep in the GTA mean that more attention will be paid to this city and to the problems of urban Canada in general? I fear not.
Mayor Ford himself has raised the bar for a new era of federal support for Toronto’s needs by having his brother state ebulliently, “We are one big happy family now,” and hinting that funding for the Toronto subway system will soon be on the way.
But the Conservative strategy and messages that swung so many votes in so many Toronto ridings had little to do with an “urban agenda” or the specific problems of our debt-ridden city.
And there will be little pressure from the opposition if their campaigns are any evidence. Liberals who were elected, like Bob Rae in Toronto Centre and Carolyn Bennett in St. Paul’s, followed their leader in not advocating the importance of an urban agenda. Jack Layton (who put the term on the map) and the other NDP victors in Toronto did not make urban problems a prominent part of their campaigns, and they are unlikely to now, with the huge Quebec caucus to deal with. The Conservative impact on Toronto was anything but a victory of Toronto messaging.
In a strategic masterstroke the Conservatives buried the confused and sometimes confusing Liberal message in an appeal for continued economic recovery and low taxes, so tightly and universally scripted and pronounced by all candidates that it sold and sold and sold.
So what can we expect now that many Toronto MPs will have a voice — for the first time since the Martin government — in the national government, and a majority one at that?
After the election a Toronto Sun editorial challenged the Harper government directly: “The bottom line is now that Toronto has rewarded the Tories with seats after years of sending mostly Liberals to Ottawa, it’s time for the Conservatives to return the favour.”
Mayor Ford was elected last October, and flaunted his friendship with Jim Flaherty, who had political responsibility for the GTA. Between then and now not much help has flowed Toronto’s way from Ottawa. Now the small-c conservative Toronto family counts many other Ford-friendly faces.
If Prime Minister Harper wants to maintain his strong Toronto base four years from now, the new crop of high-profile Conservative MPs may have to show they have actually delivered to this cash- and facility-strapped city, and perhaps even tackled similar problems in other major urban centres. But don’t hold your breath. Harper has bigger fish to fry. Moreover, cities are in the provincial, not the federal, playbook, for this government, which is generally respectful of the constitutional division of powers.
In this election the vote in Toronto and the GTA has changed the political landscape in Canada and is generally credited with ensuring a Harper majority. And it has dramatically reduced the fortunes of the Liberal Party by stripping and weakening one of its most important traditional bases. But it is unlikely, despite the GTA’s central role in Canada’s economy, that the city and its suburbs will enjoy any major refocus from the new majority government.