Of the two by-elections held in Ontario last week, the outcome that made the headlines was the one in Kitchener-Waterloo that resulted in the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) gaining the seat with the win by Catherine Fife.
Fife’s win is the first ever for the NDP in that riding. Previously held by the Progressive Conservatives, the by-election left Liberal candidate Eric Davis trailing in third place with 24 per cent of the vote.
This by-election in particular was clearly Premier Dalton McGuinty’s attempt to get a majority government so he could avoid having to negotiate with either the left-of-centre NDP or the Conservatives in order to get legislation passed. A win would have put the Liberals’ seat total on par with the combined opposition and, together with the Speaker of the House who would be expected to vote with the government, would have given the Liberals a working majority.
The appointment of Elizabeth Witmer, a moderate Conservative who had held the seat since 1995 until her retirement earlier this year to take up a $188,000-a-year job as head of the Workmen’s Compensation Board, was seen as a boldfaced move by McGuinty to take the seat away from the Tories.
However, the electorate had something else in mind. It was not all bad new, though, as Liberal Steven Del Duca held on to the seat in Vaughan, which had been vacated by Liberal Greg Sorbara who is quitting politics.
While it has been noted that Fife, a former school board trustee, ran a strong campaign to her obvious credit, it would not be hard to see the NDP win in Kitchener-Waterloo as voter repudiation, at least in that riding, of the Liberal government and the Conservatives under Tim Hudak.
Wrestling with a huge deficit is always fraught with challenges from those who will suffer cuts. And those currently bearing the brunt of the government’s cuts are Ontario’s teachers. Hurt and angry at both the Liberals and the Conservatives (for supporting the government), they used the by-elections, especially in Kitchener-Waterloo, to make their point.
This tactic of short-circuiting unions – which seems to becoming the norm, especially by Conservatives (both the federal government and Toronto mayor Rob Ford, also a Conservative, are guilty of this), became a focal argument during the by-election campaigns.
With the NDP win, it is evident that momentum is building for the party as it moves to the political centre as the Liberals seem to be shifting to the right in their efforts to attract conservative voters.
The message the Liberals should take away from these by-elections is that the voters are not stupid. They understand a crass ploy when they see one. More than that, the party’s supporters want a government that adheres to Liberal values, not one that is pretending to be Conservative.
As for the PCs, they probably know by now that they need a new leader and a new direction. Hudak is neither resonating with his base nor the wider electorate. This is when they should have been making gains as voters soften on the Liberals, but that sure doesn’t seem to be the case.
While it is too early to call the Kitchener-Waterloo win a sign of things to come, and it is possible that NDP leader Andrea Horwath is still benefiting from the popularity of the federal NDP – call it the Jack Layton effect – she did enjoy an up-tick in popularity during the recent budget fight with the Liberals in which she won some important (as far as NDPers are concerned) concessions.
With the number of problems the minority Liberals are facing, it is not inconceivable that we could face another provincial election soon. And given the sentiment of many that these Liberals have passed their best-before date, could we possibly be looking at an NDP government next time around, even a minority one? It does seem like it.
There is something else to consider. Across the country there seems to be a trend toward electing women premiers. Last week we saw the Pauline Marois-led Parti Québécois snatch victory from the Québec Liberals. Marois joins other female provincial premiers of all political stripes in British Columbia, Newfoundland and Alberta.
Could Ontario be next?