McGuinty’s caveated victory

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If political onlookers had projected the results of Thursday’s provincial election based on the polls conducted throughout 2011, we would be looking at Premier Tim Hudak and the Ontario Liberals would have been reduced to a shadow of themselves.

Instead, however, Dalton McGuinty is heading back to Queen’s Park as premier of the country’s most populous province, in a historic third election win. Those who declared the Liberal party dead after its disastrous showing in the May federal election should take pause after this election.

Even in this win for McGuinty, though, there are warning signs that the electorate is not only unenthusiastic about the Liberals but that they shying away from the entire political process.

In this election, the Liberals were defending 70 seats. They’re heading back to the legislature with only 53 — a loss of 17 seats. The party was also heading into this election with 13 ridings that Liberals had carried in 2007 but were now being contested by a different Liberal candidate — in 12 of those circumstances, the Liberal had retired and in one tragic circumstance, the candidate had passed away.

Of those 13 seats, the Liberals retained only six, with three flipping to the New Democrats (NDP) and four turning toward the Progressive Conservatives.

That situation — where a different Liberal was running in 2011 — accounted for 40 per cent of the Liberals’ seat loss in this election.

Pollsters found an incredible amount of discontent prior to the official election cycle. Once it started, though, voters were unwilling to hand over the reigns to either Hudak or NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. They were perhaps less inspired than in previous elections but not angry enough to turf McGuinty.

If that was the case, it makes sense that Liberal incumbents enjoyed the success that they did. Voters were much more likely to give incumbents another shot than to take a chance on a new face.

Yet, when all the candidates were new faces, voters were much less likely to pull the trigger for the Liberals.

Underlying this was an abysmally low turnout rate below 50 per cent. Less than half of the electorate made the decision for the entire province. This downward trend in voter turnout is a troubling indicator about the state of the Canadian democratic process.

This is the challenge for the Liberals in their third term. The party is to be hailed for its accomplishments of the last eight years, and if McGuinty fulfills his promises – like the much-praised tuition cut – he is to be commended for those achievements as well.

However, in a sense, the same problem exists here that manifested itself in the federal election. Voters chose the incumbent government somewhat begrudgingly; discontent but not overly energized.

It is easy to see McGuinty becoming fatigued in his third term having dedicated eight long years to turning around this province, no small feat after the state it was left in by previous PC governments.

But this is not the time to stop advocating for progressive action or the time to implement incremental policy. Voters need to be inspired again, to believe that there is a vision for their province that brings them into the future.

They need to want to cast their ballots for Liberals because they believe in their vision, not because they feel comfortable with their incumbency. At the same time, on a even more basic level, voters just need to simply feel like they want to cast a vote for someone.

We face major challenges in this global economy. But they are challenges we inherit as a province, not as Liberals, PCs, New Democrats or even non-voters. They impact us all, and while we must expect and push the newly-elected Liberal government to push for the most innovative, most forward-looking strategies, we must also be there right alongside them.

Governance is a collective process and it’s unacceptable that half the electorate sat this election out. Elections should be viewed as humbling responsibilities instead of tiresome rituals.

With 53 seats, McGuinty will rely on other members of the legislature to pass his agenda. In this spirit of collaboration, it’s time the province woke up.

Now is the time to see where we, as a province, can move in the coming months and what vision we can create for the future. This is a collective responsibility, one that rests in the leadership of the McGuinty Liberals, but one that the rest of us shouldn’t shy away from.

We are now in a period where elections are far down the road. It does not mean that voters should tune out and decide to come back in four years, unhappy and discontent again. Instead, it means that we all have an obligation to shape the trajectory of the province going forward.

The government has a responsibility to ensure it is putting forward a vision that we can buy into. But it’s our job to state what the framework for that vision should be. We should take that responsibility seriously.


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