Friday, January 28, 2011

Progressive Talking Point: Battleground Ontario

If we do see a federal election in 2011, Canada's largest province will be in the curious position of waging two epic battles almost simultaneously. While that's bound to increase Ontarian cynicism to record levels (and as a result, bring down turnout), it's inevitably going to affect the way the two battles turn out.

Every province in Canada differs on the degree to which that province's local voting trends and federal voting trends overlap. Varying down the years, the Ontario provincial political spectrum has been at times quite unlike the federal one, yet at the moment the two line up remarkably closely. If someone tells you they support the PCs locally, a betting man would put down money that that person supports Harper's party federally. And similarly McGuinty and Ignatieff drink from the same pool.

Yet one gets the sense that neither Hudak nor Harper, both ascendant in Ontario, would see much advantage in helping each other out. To a certain extent they might guess, correctly perhaps, that conservative successes at one level will automatically lend a glow to the other party, while the failures of one could potentially be downplayed as an example of the differences between the two. Ontario Liberals are eager anyway to paint Hudak as the next Harris. Hudak is probably undecided how snugly he'd want to get into bed with Harper seeing how polarising Harper remains in Ontario and seeing how he has a pressing need to present himself as his own man.

Meanwhile, you imagine that Ignatieff and McGuinty will be doing everything possible to avoid excessive association with one another: both struggle to maintain popularity among party loyalists, to say nothing of swing voters.

Both of these elections will be won and lost in Ontario by the conservative parties' abilities to build on strengths and avoid alienating moderates. It's looking good for the parties on the right in Ontario at the moment. Both federally and provincially (especially the latter), each Liberal Party can expect a solid drubbing. It's tough to avoid the sense that it's too late for either party to turn their fortunes around.

So where does this leave the NDP? I word that in the singular, because the NDP is the only one of the three in Ontario with organisationally-codependent federal and provincial association. Effectively, we're discussing five, not three or six, parties. And one of those five parties might well need to step into the ring twice in 2011 in Ontario. Will this help or hinder them?

Well, on the one hand both Jack Layton and Andrea Horwath are charismatic and well-liked figures. Horwath is more of an unknown, but I've seen her taken seriously in local media to a degree that Layton himself rarely is. Horwath also has a clear advantage over Layton in that she has no gun-registry issues to affect her perfomance in the Northern Ontario ridings that are crucial to both branches of the party. The other thing Horwath has that Layton would like is an extra five percent or so, by most polling standards. While the order of (Progressive) Conservative, Libeal, NDP, Green is the same both provincially and federally, the Ontario NDP poll at about 20% while the federal NDP in Ontario trend around 15% - that missing five percent most likely traditional Liberals turned off by Dalton McGuinty. If (a) the provincial election happened before the federal one, and (b) the Ontario NDP performed to, or exceeded, expectations, there might be a rub-off effect. Ontarians at least would get used to seeing the name NDP as a contender again. Alas, it'll happen the other way around, which might possibly even clip Horwath's wings a little.

No matter: what remains is that they are both likeable people, both capable, given the opportunity, of stirring up little-man passion, and both with a vested interest in co-operation and in presenting themselves as co-operative. If we do have a federal election in 2011, I do hope both would commit themselves, in Ontario, to a full year of campaigning: really, Layton can only help Horwath and Horwath can only help Layton. I think the non-right in this country regularly shoots itself in the foot by sniping each other instead of going for the prize of siphoned-off conservative votes, but since both Liberal parties could really see themselves bottoming out this year, both branches of the NDP would be silly not to present themselves as the alternative. Populism, that one and only tried-and-tested way for the left and right in Canada to circumvent the Liberals and steal votes directly from each other, doesn't play as well in Ontario (except perhaps in the north and Oshawa) as it does in much of the rest of the country. So attacking the Liberals it's going to have to be. And while that gnawing sense of anxiety that exists among New Democrats that attacking Liberals elects conservatives will certainly not go away, I have to imagine New Democrats across the province would relish more than a little the chance to take Messrs. McGuinty and Ignatieff down a rung or two.
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