The twists and turns of Ontario’s summer by-elections

 

By Andrew Perez | July 31, 2013

The Context


It’s down to the wire in Ontario’s summer by-elections in what some pundits are calling a mini-provincial election that comes almost two years after the last general election.
One year after by-elections in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo, the province has once again been plunged into summer votes, but this time in five ridings in different regions of Ontario.


Premier Kathleen Wynne caught few off guard earlier this month when she called highly anticipated by-elections in the ridings of Windsor-Tecumseh, London West, Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Scarborough-Guildwood, and Ottawa South for August 1st.


The vacant ridings – all previously held by Liberal MPPs – were freed up after a string of cabinet resignations, including those of heavyweights Dwight Duncan, Chris Bentley, Laurel Broten, and the former premier himself, Dalton McGuinty.


And while the outcomes of these five by-elections cannot alter the balance of power for the Liberal minority government, the votes fall at an intriguing time in the province’s political history: at the mid-point of the Liberals’ minority mandate and six months into Wynne’s premiership.


The Stakes


The rookie premier has been widely praised for her governing style over the past six months. But these five by-elections signify her first real test at the hands of voters. While the Grits are unlikely to hold on to all five ridings, the retention of a handful of these seats would amount to a significant feat.


For a party that many in the media have suggested is in a death spiral, Wynne’s Liberals have managed to attract several first rate candidates. A high-profile Toronto city councilor, a CEO of a prominent NGO, a teachers’ union president, a senior aide to the former premier. Not bad.


But the stakes are not only high for the rookie premier – they are arguably higher for her chief opponent, PC Leader Tim Hudak. After a humbling electoral result two years ago, Mr. Hudak is attempting to re-introduce himself to Ontario voters. The Tory leader is pleading for something few political leaders get – a second chance.


Gone are the gimmicky policy proposals and provocative campaign literature –perceived as homophobic and xenophobic by some voters. Enter the new Tim Hudak – the policy wonk extraordinaire who promises to solve Ontario’s ‘jobs crisis’, eliminate Ontario’s deficit and debt problem, and throw out the province’s labour laws by making Ontario a “right to work” province.


But if Mr. Hudak is to ask for a second chance from Ontario voters, he’ll need to command the confidence of his party first. Plagued by discontent over his leadership from within his party, the by-elections provide Hudak with the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong. Hudak will need to steal at least one seat from the Wynne Liberals – preferably in Toronto – to placate those within his party who view him as a liability (some of Hudak’s detractors are eager to replace him with the party’s more telegenic deputy leader, Christine Elliot).


Make no mistake, there is nothing Mr. Hudak would like more than a conservative beachhead in Toronto. The Tory leader is acutely aware that the path to a majority government lies through the Greater Toronto Area. But the Ontario Liberal brand is resilient in the GTA – in power for a decade now, the governing party’s support appears strong in much of the Toronto region.


Meanwhile, NDP leader Andrea Horwath is licking her wounds after a spring legislative session where she was out-maneuvered by the rookie premier. After weeks of oscillating between supporting the government or voting it down, Horwath opted to support Wynne’s budget, ultimately endorsing the economic blueprint unveiled by Finance Minister Charles Sousa.


Horwath and her party are betting their budget gambit will pay dividends – they can justifiably tell voters they extracted concrete policy concessions from the Liberal government on auto insurance, welfare rates, home care services, and accountability mechanisms. But in spite of Horwath’s success on this front, some voters perceive the NDP as propping up a government they do not support.

Three By-Election Axioms


As voting day approaches, political followers would be well advised to remind themselves of three well-observed truths:


1. Governing parties – more often than not – don’t win by-elections


Voters are fickle and intuitively see by-elections as an opportunity to send their government a message, without going so far as changing the captain of the ship. Premier Wynne said as much in a recent press conference where she acknowledged these by-elections provide voters with an opportunity to air their grievances in hopes the government is listening.


But Ontario’s Liberal government has enjoyed an unusually resilient record when it comes to retaining incumbent seats in by-election periods. All four by-elections held in Liberal-held seats in the past four years resulted in Liberal victories – in the ridings of St. Paul’s, Toronto Centre, Ottawa West-Nepean, and Vaughan. In that same period, Andrea Horwath’s NDP won an impressive victory at the Conservatives’expense in Kitchener-Waterloo in September 2012, leaving Tim Hudak short one seat at Queen’s Park.


2. In by-elections, the importance of the local candidate is bolstered – the role of the leader is less influential


With the absence of a general election backdrop, by-elections are often truly local contests where a strong candidate can champion a cause or issue and emerge victorious – notwithstanding their party banner or leader.
With no leaders’ debates or the extensive media coverage that accompanies a provincial election, most voters simply tune out. This is especially the case for these five by-elections being held in the dog days of summer when most Ontarians are focused on summertime activities – not partisan politics.
Given this reality, the party leaders and their platforms’ are unlikely to figure prominently into the by-election results on August 1st. This can be frustrating for party organizers but it underlines the importance of bullet-proof candidates armed with a profile and tested track record in their communities – popularly referred to as the ‘star candidate.’ It comes as no surprise then, that the major parties have all put fourth ‘star candidates’ in hopes of luring Ontarians to the polls.


3. Voter turnout is typically extremely low – the ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) strategy can determine which candidate wins the election


This last axiom is one political operatives live by. This principle is prefaced on the idea that victory in local votes is not based so much upon persuading non-identified voters (not aligned with a party) to support your party, but rather, in identifying your supporters and mobilizing them on election day.
And while the GOTV strategy is crucial throughout any election campaign, it’s even more critical in a by-election scenario where voter turnout is regularly below 30 per cent. Aggressively mobilizing candidate support through advanced polls and election day voting – facilitated by advanced technology – has become a staple of any winning campaign in the 21st century. Moreover, in a by-election scenario, it more often than not determines the victor.


Two Local Battles To Watch For


While all five by-elections have turned out to be hard-fought battles characterized by several unanticipated twists and turns, the London West and Etobicoke-Lakeshore races bear analysis.


In London West, an unforeseen three-way race has broken out on the heels of former Energy Minister Chris Bentley’s sudden departure from Queen’s Park earlier this year. A powerful minister in the McGuinty cabinet, Bentley held the affluent London riding for a decade, romping to victory against Tory candidate Ali Chabar by over 8,000 votes less than two years ago. Today, Chabar – a young London lawyer – is running again, this time against a star Liberal candidate. In a surprise move, Liberals recruited former teachers’ union head Ken Coran to carry their banner in London West. This, in spite of Coran leading Ontario’s high school teachers in a tense labour dispute with the government last year.


For his part, Coran has credited Premier Wynne with persuading him to run for the party, saying he believes in her values. In many respects, Coran’s return to the Liberal fold is illustrative of Wynne’s new approach and her ability to attract top level talent and diverse voices to the party. Coran is also being challenged on the left by the NDP’s Peggy Sattler, a London School Board Trustee and former Coran ally, making for an interesting twist. The race became somewhat peculiar when Coran nabbed the endorsement of the local secondary teachers’ union, while Sattler received an endorsement from the local Elementary teachers’ union, pitting one teachers’ union against the other.


In the Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, two high-profile city councillors – both charter members of Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee – are squaring off against each other in what has become a horse-race. Liberal Peter Milczyn is a lifelong Etobicoke resident who has represented the riding at Toronto City Hall since 2000. Tory Doug Holyday is the city’s Deputy Mayor and the last mayor of the former city of Etobicoke.


Before Doug Holyday’s late entry into the race, the riding was seen as a Liberal stronghold – former Liberal cabinet minister Laurel Broten held the constituency for a decade and defeated her Tory opponent in 2011 by nearly 10,000 votes – a landslide. But Holyday is a legend in Etobicoke and overnight his candidacy radically altered the dynamics in this local race.


Since early July, both the PC and Liberal parties have been pulling out all the stops in an effort to win this battleground riding. A Toronto-native, this is precisely the sort of riding Wynne would want to hold on to if she is to earn another mandate from the Ontario people. On the other hand, if Hudak is ever to form a government, he’ll need to nab several ridings that fit this community’s demographics – urban, highly-educated, with a sizable immigrant population.


But what is so intriguing about this battle is the public role the Ford brothers are playing in a provincial by-election, albeit on their own political turf. This, after a disastrous past few months for the mayor and his brother Doug as allegations of drug use eclipsed city hall’s business. And as one of the most visible faces of the Ford administration, Doug Holyday appears to be tapping into ‘Ford Nation’ (whom appear emboldened after recent events) in his quest for a seat at Queen’s Park.


The Ford brothers have backed the avuncular politician publicly (in exchange for his loyalty), officially endorsing Holyday’s candidacy earlier this month. But it remains to be seen whether the Ford brothers’ support will prove futile or a blessing in disguise. What is most puzzling is the absence of Tim Hudak in this high profile race, ostensibly replaced by the Ford brothers as the spokespeople for conservatism in Ontario.
The outcomes of the by-elections appear more precarious than they did two weeks ago. Nevertheless, it seems much of the punditocracy is musing on the significance of these local votes.


When the polls roll in Thursday evening, watch for every political party and interest group to look to take credit for the results – whatever they may be. In the aftermath of the Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo votes last summer, we witnessed exactly that – a public relations campaign (post-campaign) spearheaded by all three parties to spin the results in an attempt to buttress their respective message tracks.


But at the end of the day, it bears underlining that by-elections more often than not take on lives of their own – in other words, they are not necessarily an accurate predictor of future political events, nor do they have to foreshadow what is to come. It’s a simple, but useful point to remember as we approach Thursday evening’s results.

Andrew Perez, BJ, MPP, is a Toronto-based writer and political activist. Andrew has considerable experience working in public policy and politics, having worked as a Parliamentary Intern in Ottawa where he worked for both a government and an opposition Member of Parliament. He has also worked for the Liberal Party of Canada, and completed internships at Queen’s Park and on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Most recently, he worked as an advisor on the Sandra Pupatello leadership campaign in Ontario, briefing the candidate and senior campaign team on issues management. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University, and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto.