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How tired, old gov'ts get elected

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"But what about all the scandals?"

I heard that phrase several times in the last days of Ontario's 2014 election campaign. But the people talking about "all the scandals" weren't Progressive Conservatives or New Democrats who hoped to defeat the government. The phrase came from Liberal activists, who were both buoyed and baffled they were doing so well. Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne's victory gave her party a fourth consecutive government mandate -- and there are harsh lessons from her success for anyone yearning for change on Broadway.

If Liberals were pleasantly surprised to win a secure majority Thursday night, the shocks for Ontario's PCs and New Democrats were much more brutal. Strategists from both opposition parties only had to look in a mirror to find an explanation. Somehow, both PC Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath managed to push aside a long list of Liberal scandals to make themselves the top campaign issue instead.

Canadians don't want to be scared by their governments-in-waiting

On the NDP side, leader Andrea Horwath triggered the election by signalling her party had lost confidence in Wynne's minority government. Building on recent byelection successes, the NDP ran as if a big victory was theirs by right -- an attitude familiar to anyone who watched the last few PC campaigns in Manitoba. Horwath released a populist, centrist platform, believing the NDP could easily convert conservative voters in the southwest corner of the province. She told reporters she was simply trying to do what Tony Blair had done for Labour in Britain.

Blair's "New Labour" realignment took months to settle in. In contrast, Horwath's fly-by-night rebrand caught her own supporters by surprise. Urban NDP voters in a few key seats responded by strategically voting Liberal instead. One outspoken NDP fan of the rightward shift -- longtime MPP Rosario Marchese, in Trinity Spadina -- lost his seat in the heart of progressive Toronto, an unlikely martyr to his own rhetoric.

Conservative errors were even more clever, in the self-inflicted sense of the word. PC Leader Tim Hudak and his team explicitly promised to cut 100,000 civil-service jobs. Supposedly, they hoped to motivate the party base. Instead, they gave critics ammunition to mock the PC pledge to create a million new jobs if elected.

What made this decisive misstep even more bizarre is the fact Ontario's civil-service employment is large enough to sustain major cuts solely by not filling vacancies. Hudak could have promised to cut thousands of positions through attrition without threatening to fire a soul. PC campaign officials gradually softened the job-cut mantra accordingly, but the damage was already done. "They'll cut 100,000 jobs" became the best get-out-the-vote slogan for Ontario Liberals since "free beer!" was shouted in Toronto taverns in the 1870s.

There are a hundred lessons from this bizarre campaign. One example: Policy does matters, since a math error burned the credibility of Hudak's million-jobs plan. Another: Byelection trends aren't real trends, and the NDP was foolhardy to presume as much.

But the biggest lesson matters to Manitobans looking ahead to 2015. It seems Canadians don't want to be scared by their governments-in-waiting, even if they're actually in the mood for change.

For political hacks, polls asking if it's "time for a change?" are a key indicator. Traditionally, a high "time for a change" number is a sign an incumbent government is about to be hoofed from office. The McGuinty-Wynne regime has done much to anger voters, with multi-million or even billion-dollar fiascos in e-health development, air ambulances and the infamous gas-plant relocations. Even late in the campaign, some polls put Ontario's "time for a change" at record highs.

And yet, as you read this, Premier Kathleen Wynne is busy reassembling her cabinet from a much larger caucus. Her appointments will almost certainly include former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, who was safely re-elected in Toronto Centre.

Two Ontario political parties sacrificed a great opportunity this month, all to prove a point they didn't expect to prove. These days, even if voters want change, that doesn't mean they want a lot of it.

If you're working for either of Manitoba's opposition parties, giving voters comfort and confidence may prove to be just as important as giving them an alternative.

 

Brian Kelcey served in senior political posts at Winnipeg city hall and in the Ontario legislature. He is working as the campaign manager for David Soknacki's mayoral bid in Toronto.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A17

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