On Unintended Narratives and Uncontrolled Expectations


I haven’t talked about politics on this blog as much as I used to, but I guess I caught a bit of the old bug when I followed the Ontario by-election results on Twitter last night.

For those of you who don’t know or don’t follow Ontario politics closely (which may be a lot of you), the minority Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne had called five by-elections for August 1st to fill five seats that had been left vacant by resigning or retiring Liberal MPPs. These included the seat of former premier Dalton McGuinty, Ottawa South.

Yesterday, the results came in and the Liberals retained two out of the five seats (Scarborough-Guildwood and Ottawa South). The New Democrats snatched two (Windsor-Tecumseth and London West) and the Conservatives one (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, in a battle that pitted council colleagues Doug Holyday against Peter Milczyn). So, with the Liberals losing three seats out of five the biggest loser of the night is clearly… Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

How does that work? I’ll explain.

Throughout the short campaign, the Conservatives failed to dampen expectations and campaigned hard on making these by-elections a referendum on the Wynne Liberals. Mind you, they were aided and abetted by a media that seemed eager for a Conservative smackdown on the Liberals. Had the Liberals lost McGuinty’s old seat, that would have been as potent a symbol as any the Conservatives could hope for.

But in so doing, the Conservatives inadvertently added an amendment to said referendum: not just on the fitness of the Wynne Liberals to govern, but the fitness of Hudak’s Conservatives to replace them. Opinion polls (which, despite spectacular failures in the past, are still used to generate anticipation and headlines) suggested that the Conservatives were sixteen points ahead in Ottawa South. It suggested that Doug Holyday was a shoe-in for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, that they were leading in London West, and a serious player in Scarborough-Guildwood.

And so nearly impossible parameters were set. Nothing less than taking four out of the five by-elections could be seen as a win for Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

The first blow to that narrative came when the results of London West came in. The NDP were always expected to take Windsor-Tecumseth (they’ve always been a strong player in this working class area); though they were in the running in London West, taking it outright was still a startling upset. Then Adam Giambrone made the NDP a competitive player in Scarborough-Guildwood.

With Liberal candidate John Fraser defying the odds and taking Ottawa South, the stage was set for a very bad night for the Conservatives indeed. Only the personal local popularity of Doug Holyday saved the Conservatives from outright catastrophe.

At least, that’s how the narrative goes. Without the narrative that the Conservatives themselves contributed to, the reality of the morning of August 2nd is that the Conservatives are one MP stronger than they were on July 31st, and the Liberals are three MPs weaker. But with the pre-election narrative in place, what the story looks like on August 2nd is that the NDP were rewarded for keeping the Liberal government in power.

Or, as one commentator put rather succinctly, “the voters decided that the Liberals needed to be spanked, but that Ontario didn’t deserve to be punished.” Which speaks volumes about how voters view the Hudak Conservatives at this moment. They’re clearly the Liberals’ biggest asset in Queen’s Park.

Bets are being taken over whether Hudak will resign or call a leadership review before the legislature resumes on September 9. Honestly, I’d give the odds of that as “even money”, though personally I think that Hudak may be too stubborn and the Conservatives too blind to realize that their own message simply isn’t resonating with the large majority of Ontarians, and until they change their leader and their message, they themselves bear a chunk of responsibility for allowing the Wynne Liberals to hang on to power.

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