Public appetite for change has the Ontario Liberals against the ropes one year before the next election is due. The most recent Angus Reid poll on the issue found that 76 per cent of Ontarians say they want a change in government. The poll showed 29 per cent support for the Liberals, 41 per cent for the Conservatives and 22 per cent for the NDP.
In 2003, when Dalton McGuinty overcame the epithets heaped on him by Conservative campaigners and brought a Liberal government back to Ontario, there was a huge sigh of relief. The anger generated by the Mike Harris ‘Common Sense Revolution’ left so much of the province wanting a change that the McGuinty Liberals won a resounding victory. Now nearing the end of their second term, Ontario Liberals continue to have a strong majority with 72 seats to the Conservatives’ 25 and the Ontario New Democrats’ 10, relatively unchanged from the 2003 election.
But, seven years later, these are difficult times. Any government that has to carry the burden of a recession is going to face discontent from the electorate. In addition, the timing could not have been worse for increasing the cost of electricity in Ontario and implementing the harmonized sales tax, for example.
With Toronto City Councillor Rob Ford running his mayoral campaign on cutting spending at City Hall, could the message have a spill over effect on the McGuinty Liberals?
Perhaps it is time for McGuinty to take to the airwaves, as does the American president when he needs to strongly communicate policies that raise public outcry. Since not everyone checks in regularly to Question Period to find out what the Liberals are intending when they add additional cost to already burdened taxpayers, provincial ministers have to make an effort to ensure that they get their message out about what it is they are trying to do. For, if all we understand is that we are paying more for everything, the next obvious step is to find a scapegoat and think about change. After all, we don’t vote parties in, we vote parties out.
The polls suggest Ontario voters are leaning towards the Conservatives. But, this is not John Tory’s Conservatives or even Ernie Eves’ Conservatives. Current party leader, Tim Hudak, is one of the more hardline of the Mike Harris Conservatives. We could imagine that if Hudak was to take his party to a majority, or even a minority government, that he would want to pick up where Harris left off. For now, he is making the standard Conservative noise about cutting taxes, which everyone likes to hear. But will he do away with the HST, for example? It is highly unlikely. His response has been: “All options are on the table.” But we know that politicians, once in government, seldom cut taxes, no matter how they railed against them when in opposition.
If McGuinty hopes to reverse this trend that the polls suggest and spare Ontarians the unpleasant choice of shifting further right, then it is in his and the Liberals’ best interest to begin to forcefully and with clarity make a case for the policy actions he has taken.
McGuinty needs to pay attention to the success Rob Ford is having, and keep those explanations simple and honest.
We have a year to come to terms with what kind of Ontario we want to live in going forward. Do we want to go with Harris-lite? Can we live with a replay of the Mike Harris era at Queen’s Park with the double whammy of a Rob Ford at City Hall?
McGuinty is a steady-as-you-go politician, but he needs to get the message out to Ontarians that he understands our concerns and that what he is doing, while painful, will pay off down the road.
Otherwise, come the day after October 6 next year he will be sitting on the opposite side of the house at Queen’s Park.