The Death of Fear IV


With less than a year to go before Ontarians go to the polls, and with the aftermath of the Parkdale-High Park by-election behind us, I feel confident enough to make a prediction of the outcome. Take it with whatever truckload of salt you require:

Liberal         56
Conservative    37
New Democrat    14

So, reduced Liberal majority, but a majority nonetheless. My sense is, the average Ontarian voter may be disappointed with Dalton McGuinty’s last four years in power, but not disappointed enough to fire him. This is partly because he hasn’t done anything that merits an outright firing, and it’s also because the candidates available to replace McGuinty can’t fill his shoes. I do not see the opposition parties turning this around without a miracle, or a blatant mistake on the part of the government, and I think the latter is far more likely to happen than the former.

This assessment is equally applicable to Toronto Mayor David Miller, who faced the same verdict of the voters earlier this month. The similarities between Miller and McGuinty continue: in October 2003, the Ontario voters abandoned a bereft hard-right Conservative government for an affable young leader who promised to heal the wounds and hurt feelings that had been inflicted by the previous two governments; in the same way, David Miller was elected one month later to soothe a dysfunctional council and turn Toronto’s services around. Both have struggled hard against hefty deficits left behind by previous administrations. Both have alienated voters by failing to live up to particular promises.

But whereas David Miller raised expectations upon his election, thanks to his exuberant style, his aspirations towards Jane Jacobs’ principles of urbanism, and the expectation that money would flow freely from the newly elected McGuinty government, Dalton McGuinty was very careful to keep expectations low.

“I won’t raise your taxes, but I won’t lower them, either,” he told us, in one of the best campaign advertisements I’ve ever seen. “I need the money to invest in your schools and hospitals.” Conservatives harangue McGuinty for breaking this promise by instituting a health care premium. New Democrats harangue McGuinty for failing to follow through quickly on spending commitments. Three years into McGuinty’s mandate, Toronto is still struggling against a fiscal imbalance and a looming capital budget shortfall that’s in the billions. But for the voters, the fact remains that, under McGuinty, the situation has improved.

Gas tax dollars are finally flowing towards public transit agencies throughout the province. Yes, it’s short of what agencies like the TTC need, but it’s a dramatic improvement over what occurred under Harris. And, yes, we’re paying more taxes for our health care, but our waiting times are down. And while challenges still exist in education, relations are far better than when the Conservatives were in power. And while Toronto still struggles with structural problems, the City of Toronto Act promises to loosen at least some of the bonds.

Conservative Leader John Tory may appear to have more integrity than Dalton McGuinty, but the party he commands is still tainted with the legacy of Eves and Harris. Likewise, Howard Hampton debates well, and speaks to the aspirations of many Ontarians, but he’s hampered by the sense that he has no idea of how to cope with the funding reality, and the millstone of Rae Days remains around his neck.

All of this works in McGuinty’s favour so long as the voting public is convinced that, whatever his failings, McGuinty means well. And therein lies the biggest potential minefield for the Liberal’s potential campaign. Any attempt to go negative, as was done in the Parkdale-High Park by-election, collapses the impression the voters have that McGuinty means well.

Most elections are about the leaders, and not much separates Dalton McGuinty from John Tory. Indeed, their differences balance each other off: McGuinty has the experience Tory doesn’t; Tory has the integrity that McGuinty doesn’t (although most voters probably assume that this is because Tory hasn’t held office long enough to break a politician’s complement of promises).

Tory is the moderate face of a party that was significantly further to the right than where he stands, and the voters, in my opinion, sense that the fit isn’t a perfect one. On the other hand, McGuinty’s decision to raise taxes (or health care premiums), has labelled him as a politician who breaks his promises. The voters have given him credit for breaking that promise for good reason, but it has still been a blow to his credibility.

And that’s where things stand. McGuinty is well positioned to take a second term… so long as his campaign team doesn’t screw things up. And this is where the events of Parkdale-High Park come in. What happened here, with former Education Minister Gerard Kennedy’s riding falling to NDP candidate Cheryl Dinovo, should be a warning to the Liberals against running a particularly negative campaign. As long as the Liberals conduct themselves in a positive manner, the voters will accept that McGuinty means well and will likely reward him with a majority. But if the Liberals go negative, they don’t have the credibility to make it stick.

It is a truism to say “negative advertising works”, but I say bollocks. Eves ran a negative campaign in 2003; he lost. Jane Pitfield ran a negative campaign against Miller this year; she lost. The Paul Martin Liberals tried to scare voters with the idea of Stephen Harper as prime minister of this country; in 2006, they lost. In comparison, three of the past four major elections that were fought in Ontario since 2002 — the provincial election of October 2003, the Toronto mayoralty race of 2004 and the federal election of January 2006 — were all won by those who were perceived to have risen above the mudslinging. McGuinty addressed the electorate and levelled with them: “I won’t lower your taxes. I need the money to invest in your health and education systems.” Miller ran a campaign of ideas, and Harper moved to the centre on a campaign that promised accountability in government. I can recall more negative campaigns that resulted in either contests that were closer than they should have been or outright loses. Negative advertising does not work, and it often backfires against the advertiser.

What is true is that negative advertising only works when it picks at sentiments that already exist within the voters’ mind. Stephen Harper didn’t have to work hard in 2006 to paint the federal Liberals as corrupt; the Liberals basically wrote that script for him. In 2007, the minds of Ontario voters will be balanced precariously between two points: either McGuinty’s first term in office was not perfect and he knows this, but he is man enough to stand on his record anyway, or McGuinty will try instead to distract Ontarians from this reality by saying that John Tory is a reptilian kitten eater from another planet.

And if the latter occurs, the voters will respond as they responded to Ernie Eves in 2003: with the sense that the government is unwilling to run on its record, and that they are out of ideas. John Tory has positioned himself as a McGuinty who hasn’t yet broken his promises. The voters are fluid, and may shift enough to pull the brass ring out of McGuinty’s grasp. Negative campaigns highlight a vacuum of new ideas, and Canadian voters seem smart enough to figure this out.

McGuinty has a record that he can run on. It’s not perfect, but it is defendable. Yes, the Conservatives and the New Democrats will attack it. If they’re foolish, they will attack McGuinty. The Liberal campaign must be careful not to respond in kind, to instead attack alternate policies and not the individuals behind them.

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