Monday, July 30, 2007

Ontario Election Preview Part 1: The Parties

What's that you ask? Isn't it ludicrously early to be putting out an election preview? Not at all! Okay, there's no news in the summer and I am low on ideas. So with the election about 10 political lifetimes away, here is the start of my election preview. The first thing to figure out is how the parties are going to attack this election. What issues will they emphasize/play down? Here's a quick run through of the three and a half major parties.

Liberals: The governing Liberals are looking to hold on to as many of the seats they won last time around. Having already lost a few in by-elections to the NDP in Toronto, the Liberals may be tempted to run to the left. However, the presence of centre-right John Tory's PC's makes any dramatic shift right dangerous as Tory is ready to take the centre. The message from McGuinty and co. will probably be "Let us finish what we've started". The Grits started out behind the eight ball financially and that led to delays in some of their campaign promises particularly around health care. The energy promise (eliminating all coal-fired plants) was simply overly-ambitious but there has been progress. The jewel in the McGuinty's crown is education and expect the Premier to play to it. Class sizes are down (not all the way, but down) and there has been labour peace. These might not seem like major accomplishments but it is night and day for Ontario's schools. The Grit's strength on education will play nicely for them with Tory's religious schools blunder. The Grits are going to try to avoid being tagged as being chronic promise-breakers, but it may prove challenging. How important their ability to keep their word is to the people of Ontario remains to be seen. Ontarians reelected Chretien in 1997 after he broke many of his campaign promise and re-elected Harris in 1999 in large measure because he kept his. The Grits are praying that their get the bad news out of the way early strategy has worked and that the now balanced budget will make people forget the health tax. The recent immigration scandal will be troublesome but no one knows exactly how troublesome. Also a nuisance will be the budget headaches of the city of Toronto and the apocalyptic warnings of its mayor. McGuinty's refusal to help may bolster NDP fortunes in the city. The Liberals will focus their strategy on holding their seats in the GTA. To this end, the Grits should play up their ambitious transit plans. The Grits will also be reminding people of the last time the PC's were in power. However, this attack has limited salience against John Tory.

Progressive Conservatives: The Tories are trying to make people forget that they've governed the province in the last twenty years. Otherwise, their attacks on McGuinty's budget headaches and taxes may backfire. The released parts of the PC platform look like a slightly more libertarian version of what one would expect from the Grits. With the exception of religious schools, Tory may have trouble differentiating himself. This is a problem in a province which is usually reluctant to change its government at any level. The PC's need to demonstrate that McGuinty's government is a failure and that a change is necessary. The cult of personality thing that John Tory has going could help or harm the Tories depending on how its played (more on leadership in my next preview post). One may expect the sagging manufacturing sector to be a point of PC attack but the economy may not be the most resonant issue. This is true for a couple of reasons. Firstly, McGuinty has had limited success (Toyota) in bringing manufacturing jobs into the province. Secondly, the national headlines talk about how the economy is booming and the Bank of Canada is worried about inflation. Ontarians rarely separate their province from their country and the regional discrepancy may be a bit nuanced for a sound bite. The Tories will play to McGuinty's failure to execute his promises and try to pick up seats in the 905 and the north of Toronto.

NDP: The NDP's campaign will be all about the green. Province wide, Hampton will be talking about poverty (green is the colour of money) and the environment. In the North, Hampton will hammer the Grits on the collapsing forestry industry. The anti-poverty message was effective in picking up two Toronto by-elections from the Liberals. However, with the parliamentary wage hike a distant memory and the incremental minimum wage increases getting closer and closer to the $10 dollar mark Hampton has advocated, the message may not work as well as it did in the spring of 2006. Hampton will harp about the dangers of nuclear energy and the necessity of even more renewables to try to ensure that he doesn't bleed support to the Greens. Expect the NDP to focus on their cores of support in downtown Toronto, major manufacturing towns and the North. While they should do better than they did in 2003, it would take a miracle for the NDP to form a government.

Greens: Frank de Jong and the Ontario Green Party are in a great position to emerge as a force on the Ontario political scene. The environment is the hot-button issue. Whether or not the Greens can put out a coherent message and win votes in what is expected to be a tight election is another question. The other major question mark for the Greens is how many of their activists spend their time on the referendum instead of the party. While other parties may lose volunteers to the referendum, the Greens have fewer to spare and their committment to electoral reform is second only to the environment in their party's core principles. Green success will be measured in popular vote, not seats.

Next time I'll run down the challenges and strategies for the specific party leaders.

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