Ontario Election 2011: What Kind of Day Has it Been?

This is my final post for the Toronto Star’s Speak Your Mind, as published on their website this morning and reprinted here by their kind permission.  Please ignore the shameless self-promotion in the final paragraph as it was meant for non-regular readers of this blog.

In the City of Burlington, the more things stay the same, the more they stay the same.

In a result that surprised only the politically naïve, Conservative Jane McKenna maintained the PC’s 70-year hold on the riding by a few thousand votes over her closest opponent, Liberal Karmel Sakran.  The NDP’s Peggy Russell was a distant third, although she improved the NDP’s vote totals from 2007.  None of the other party candidates made a dent.  In the end, the status quo reigns.

A couple of lessons to take from this result – primarily, that the Blue Machine in Burlington remains formidable in its city-wide presence and get-out-the-vote efforts, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Despite the troubled and controversial candidate nomination process Team Blue underwent in the pre-writ, this riding boasts a solid bloc of Conservative voters who will remain loyal no matter whose name is on the ballot.  It is noteworthy to mention that what distinguishes Burlington from next-door neighbour Oakville, where Liberal Kevin Flynn was re-elected to his third term, is that most unlike Oakville, Burlington boasts a fairly large rural community.  Province-wide, the Tories cleaned up in the rural ridings.  Many rural voters are upset with Liberal policies like the Greenbelt, a swath of which dominates Burlington’s north, and a general feeling, justified or not, that their concerns are passed over in favour of the urban areas.  Those voters tend to be get-government-out-of-the-way conservatives and they always make it to the polls in large numbers.

And yet, the combined total of Liberal and NDP votes exceeded McKenna’s numbers by a considerable margin, suggesting conservatives are outnumbered in Burlington by a majority of generally progressive voters who could finally tip the balance if a single progressive candidate could rally their support.  Burlington’s council leans progressive and its mayor once ran federally for the Green Party, so it’s a misconception to assume that the city’s political leanings are as far to the right as say, somewhere in Alberta.  Despite the apparent Conservative lock, the riding remains poachable.

One of the things that the federal Conservatives are regularly pilloried for is to have their nominees or failed candidates acting as “shadow MP’s” in their ridings, establishing a community presence and visibility with an eye to the next electoral cycle.  More often than not, it pays off – witness their gains in the GTA on May 2nd – and there is no reason why the Liberals or NDP couldn’t do that in Burlington either.  Find a face and get out there at local events and rallies starting tomorrow – not to undermine the MPP, but to humanize an alternative, and to try and suck some oxygen out of the traditional charges levelled too often without response against Liberals and New Democrats.

That’s tomorrow’s challenge, anyway.  Right now we offer congratulations to Jane McKenna as she takes her seat in the Legislature and hope that Dalton McGuinty’s foray as the leader of a minority government is more productive than Stephen Harper’s – that McGuinty’s focus will be on governing, not playing political games and seizing every opportunity to make the opposition look bad.  McGuinty can solidify himself as a true statesman by making this minority work and proving that Ontario was smart in trusting him with a third mandate, that the unpopular choices he made were the right ones.  Who knows – if he is successful in shepherding Ontario back to economic prosperity, there might be another job opening up in 2013 he’d become the odds-on favourite for – one that is currently held by another Premier of Ontario.

I’d like to thank the Toronto Star and Speak Your Mind for the wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts about my hometown and this election with you.  I’ll be continuing to blog at www.grahamscrackers.wordpress.com if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here and would like to see more.  Or you can follow me on Twitter at @thegrahammilne.  In closing I’d just like to remind everyone that our democracy is one of the most precious possessions we have, one that is envied the world over and is yet the most fragile of gifts.  We have been entrusted with this flame and we are morally bound to keep it bright.  Because the road back to the worst of dictatorship and despotism begins when good people choose to stay home and close their eyes.

Keep them open.

Ontario Election 2011: Endgame on Brant Street

As published on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star’s website today and reprinted by their kind permission.

Six weeks.  Six weeks of hand-shaking, baby-kissing, promise-making, mud-slinging and it’s all down to this.  By nine tonight it will all be over and the work of digging Ontario out of its troubles will resume.  Democracy at its finest.

If you believe the polls, and who doesn’t on occasion, Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals are on the cusp of staging a political comeback almost unheard of in Canadian history.  Who would have imagined in the dog days of August when the McGuinty crew was 20 points down, that reporters would be predicting a third consecutive Liberal majority in Ontario?  For Liberals like myself, still smarting from the federal pasting we took on May 2nd, it may well represent a turning of the red tide – and a welcome reminder that we are still part of the conversation, that we haven’t had the fight beaten out of us yet.  But we’ll wait and see where things are by the end of the night before Team Red pops the champagne corks.

The question remains as to how Burlington will fare when the last votes are tallied.  The massive Forum Research poll conducted a week ago had Conservative Jane McKenna leading Liberal Karmel Sakran by nine points.  As I mentioned in my first post, Burlington has a long tradition of voting blue, sending a Conservative to Queen’s Park in every election since 1943.  Will the tradition continue?

McKenna has hit most of the key issues, promising to fund the expansion of Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital and pledging to keep the proposed Mid-Peninsula Highway – which could potentially cut an asphalt swath through the fragile Niagara Escarpment – out of Burlington entirely.  But some of the other promises made by her boss haven’t sat especially well here.  A small Burlington-based green-energy business held a protest on Monday morning against Tim Hudak’s plan to repeal the Green Energy Act, saying it would destroy emerging jobs in this growing sector.  And local municipal politicians are raising concerns over the potential resumption of downloading in service costs that took place under Mike Harris, warning that tremendous property tax hikes could result.

Karmel Sakran and the NDP’s Peggy Russell appear to have both run strong campaigns.  But as it did six weeks ago, the race remains Jane McKenna’s to lose.  The Conservative ethos is so entrenched in the voting population of Burlington it will take a tremendous surge in support for one of the other major party candidates to pry this riding out of their hands after almost 70 years.  Still, it’s noteworthy that Tim Hudak has made several visits to Burlington and chose to stop here on the final night of the campaign to shore up support – as if his internal polling is telling him something else.  We won’t know until tomorrow night if history will repeat itself, or offer up a big surprise.

Joseph Brant himself once said, “We are tired out in making complaints and getting no redress.”  It is crucial that whoever is fated to be Burlington’s next MPP hits the ground running as a committed advocate for our community.  We have seen too many of our representatives acting as invisible seat-fillers, and this great city deserves so much more.  It deserves a champion.  Someone who knows Burlington’s soul and can channel the spirit of its people – cheering the Teen Tour Band during Sound of Music and inhaling barbecue at Ribfest.  Perhaps those expectations are a little lofty for something as ostensibly pedestrian as a provincial election, but if you are selecting an advocate for 175,799 of your neighbours, there’s nothing wrong in aiming as high as you can.  The greater crime is to settle for less.

See you at the polling station, friends.

Ontario Election 2011: Waiting for Bartlet

As published on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star this morning and reprinted by their kind permission as always.

If you’re a political junkie, watching The West Wing spoils you.

Listening to imaginary politicians like Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet lacerate their opponents with the inspired, honey-tongued erudition that is the trademark of writer Aaron Sorkin creates an expectation that real life should function the same way.  That our leaders should be able to articulate their arguments so clearly and incisively, that contrarians can do nothing but wither at the mere sound of the words.

Tuning into an Ontario election debate disabuses one of that notion.

I wasn’t able to attend the Burlington debate this week.  The organizers apparently did not count on much, if any public attendance, given their decision to schedule it during the Tuesday morning commute.  One of the highlights, it seems, was Conservative candidate Jane McKenna warning that Ontario’s economy risks going the way of Greece should the Liberals be re-elected.  The cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of democracy and souvlaki, held up as the paradigm of governmental failure – by candidates seeking government office through democratic election.  One could write several college English papers on the levels of irony at work here.  What is less ironic is that McKenna probably didn’t come up with that insightful analogy on her own; it was likely scripted, shaped and poll-tested at Hudak Headquarters before being rolled out for Burlington’s ears on Tuesday morning.

A few thousand years before Greece’s economy collapsed, its scholars were shaping the fabric of democracy itself through their dialogues and discussions.  Our best literature is that which raises new ideas and examines them from all sides; thesis challenged with antithesis to generate a new conclusion.  We haven’t seen that in a political debate in ages.  Nowadays, debates are more like joint press conferences where each candidate recites his or her pre-approved script by rote and hopes not to stumble over the words they didn’t write themselves.  The one debate I was able to attend a few weeks ago, for a different riding, featured five candidates who barely acknowledged each other’s presence, let alone interacted or challenged each other to defend their ideas.  No minds were opened that evening, no fence-sitters swayed or opponents converted.  Deliver talking point, lather, rinse, repeat, snooze.

Indeed, the bar has been set so low that all a candidate need do is not knock over their podium to be judged as having given a solid performance.  It was amazing to witness the struggle with which columnists and bloggers attempted to ascribe victory to any of the contenders in Tuesday night’s leader’s debate.  Tim Hudak saying to Dalton McGuinty that “no one believes you anymore” was apparently a signature moment.  Andrea Horwath’s tale about her son being sent away from an ER with a bone fracture was another “winner.”  And the Premier garnered more ink for his animated hand gestures than for anything he actually said.

Seasoned political reporters disdain the idea of the “knockout punch,” like Brian Mulroney’s “You had an option, sir,” or Jack Layton’s “If Canadians don’t show up to work, they don’t get a promotion.”  They think it’s less important than staying on message, sticking to your platform, getting the facts out.  They’re probably right.  But the unabashed theatricality of moments like that is what makes voters not just choose a candidate, but fall in love with them.  It’s one thing to have a great platform and a solid message.  But we want to see someone alive on that stage, a true character – not a marionette who has to calculate all the potential political blowback of each word before he speaks it.

Today there is too much fear of fallout to risk letting the human being shine through – too much central control of the campaign, lest news cycles be lost to apologies, denials and explanations for rogue nominees going off-message.  The very process that selects candidates tends to weed out the most colorful, and only the blandest and safest survive the slings and arrows to make it to that podium.  Those that do rely on the same tactics – the tales of struggling souls encountered along the campaign trail whose concerns oddly happen to dovetail with the key planks of the party’s platform, the countless mentions of family, the interruptions, the use of “taxes” as a profanity.  You know what they’re going to say before they say it.  What I felt was Tim Hudak’s most clever line of the night, about rearranging his daughter’s alphabet magnets randomly to form the initials of every unnecessary Ontario government agency, was a little less fresh given that PC candidate Ted Chudleigh used the same line in the Halton debate a few weeks prior.  Or that Republicans were laying the exact same charge against the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940’s.

Debates are a cornerstone of the democratic process.  That we only have one leader’s debate in an election cycle is preposterous.  We need more.  And just once it would be great if the debaters threw away the script.  If we junked those stilted “questions from average Canadians” and let the politicians have at it in a real sparring match of intellectual prowess, one that allowed us to distinguish clearly between which ideology we feel is best to guide us into the next decade.  To make our choice not for just the best policies, but for the best person; not a manager, but a visionary.

That’s how The West Wing got Jed Bartlet.  That’s how you pick a leader.

Ontario Election 2011: Lies, damn lies and statistics

As printed on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star’s website this morning and reprinted by their kind permission.

The redoubtable Homer Simpson put it best: “You can use statistics to prove anything.  Fourfty percent of all people know that.”

Three weeks into the provincial election and it’s all about the polls. Tim Hudak was up, then it was Dalton McGuinty, then Hudak again, now more or less a statistical tie with Andrea Horwath and the NDP biting at both parties’ heels. Pollsters are even attacking each other over accusations of fudging results to fit editorial opinion. Because there doesn’t seem to be much of a story otherwise.

The degree to which polls have come to drive our national narrative is disappointing but not surprising. Governing is not sexy, so instead the media prints the tale of the tape – columnists fill their required inches analyzing and debating how each mistimed message or on-camera gaffe might shave a few tenths of a percentage point off the support of a random sample of less than a thousand people, plus or minus three or four nineteen times out of twenty. Levels of relative political strength are gauged like box scores and each small aberration is a front page headline. When we start talking about our government in sports metaphors, when it’s no longer about who we are as Canadians or where we’re going as a country, it becomes all about our guys beating your guys. No one is emotionally invested in anything beyond the win. Small wonder then when, consequently, political discourse devolves into hooliganism and necktie-wearing adversaries trash-talking each other like louts in nacho cheese-stained jerseys soaked on their fifth Labatt’s Blue late in the third period. Even the Prime Minister talks about achieving a Conservative “hat trick” if Tim Hudak becomes Premier.

Except in the case of this election, it’s not even like watching the Leafs battle the Canadiens. It’s more like a cricket test match between Argentina and Cameroon.

Drive down New Street in Burlington and you’d barely know an election was happening. A handful of signs each for Karmel Sakran and Jane McKenna, on the lawns of the same diehards who brandish them in every election. Maybe one or two signs for Peggy Russell, but they’re as elusive as four-leaf clovers. “Conservative Corner,” otherwise known as Appleby & Fairview, is lined with blue McKenna placards, just as it was for Conservative MP Mike Wallace in the federal contest back in May. But that’s about it.

We’ve become disengaged because we’ve lost touch with what government is supposed to be – a group of committed citizens working to better the lives of their fellows who have entrusted them with the mantle of leadership. We’ve come to think of government in terms only of the race, of the never-ending popularity contest where every minor shift in the prevailing winds moves forests worth of newsprint. Government has been reduced to a matter of numbers; our “leaders,” glorified bean-counters who usually can’t even count. Who governs us is apparently as of little consequence to the grand scheme as last week’s Jays game. If Tim Hudak becomes Premier it won’t be because he has articulated a compelling vision for the future of Ontario, it will simply be because more of his fans made it to the ballot box on October 6th than did Dalton McGuinty’s.

After your team loses, you curse the ref, shrug your shoulders, sleep off the Blue and forget about it within a few hours. Your government will be with you for the next four years, making crucial decisions that will impact your life beyond that four-year mandate. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that government is more than just a series of tax reforms and malaise about how we can’t really do anything because we won’t even try.

And 100% of the people should know that.

Ontario Election 2011: The dance of the angry grandpa

As published this morning on the Speak Your Mind section of the Toronto Star website and reprinted by their kind permission.

There’s an old saying that a week is a lifetime in politics.  Seven days in a campaign can change everything.

At the start of this campaign a week ago, fortune was smiling on Tim Hudak and the Conservatives.  Rob Ford was in charge in Toronto; Stephen Harper had his majority in Ottawa.  Bad press, an unpopular tax and general voter ennui were threatening to end Dalton McGuinty’s tenure as Premier of Ontario and propel the recession-weary province into the willing arms of a receptive Team Blue.  All Hudak had to do was keep his head down, carry out a tight campaign and stroll into his accolades.

But then a week went by.

To be fair, there have been cracks in the Hudak machine for some time now.  The extreme right flank of his party, emboldened by the blue tide washing over the GTA in recent elections, have begun airing, quite boldly, some of their less palatable points of view.  Old standard-bearers like longtime MPP Norm Sterling have been brushed aside for being not conservative enough.  It’s been too much for the Red Tory faction of the provincial party, with former leaders Ernie Eves and John Tory slamming the shenanigans publicly and loudly.  This week, Hudak himself walked into a big brick wall by denouncing the Liberals’ plan to offer tax credits for businesses who hire skilled new Canadians as a scheme to give jobs to “foreign workers.”  Wouldn’t you know it, little old Burlington got our name into the game when PC candidate Jane McKenna uttered this gem while trying to articulate her opposition as well:  “When did we become for immigrants?”

That sound you heard was a lot of jaws crashing to the floor.

I’ll give McKenna the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this was just a case of an inexperienced campaigner going up on her talking points.  She has since issued an apology, emphasizing that her statement did not reflect the official position of her party.  But it’s certainly not the kind of momentum Hudak needs at this point.

Campaigns are won and lost based on narratives.  After the first week, the narrative for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives is coalescing into that of the angry grandpa yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.  Which is great if you want to sew up the angry grandpa vote, and there are certainly a lot of those – but not enough to win government, particularly if you end up unwittingly motivating the “gentle grandma” vote to come out in droves instead.  Additionally, the Tories’ campaign plan to emphasize Dalton McGuinty’s record on taxes – usually a winning issue for any conservative campaign – has hit a bump in the shape of Randy Hillier’s outstanding debt to the Canada Revenue Agency.  While this will probably endear Hillier further to his supporters, it doesn’t help sway moderate voters who do pay their taxes on time and don’t enjoy the idea of a tax dodger winding up as Minister of Finance.

For McGuinty’s part, he must certainly be happy with the Harris-Decima poll published mid-week that had the Liberals at 41% support and comfortably in the lead over the Tories for the first time in many months.  While it was only one poll, and should be viewed critically given the small sample of only 650 voters, it was good for a few days of positive coverage.  McGuinty’s visit to Burlington this past Thursday afternoon to support Karmel Sakran, so early in the campaign, suggests that he believes this riding is poachable.  After this past week, it does feel like the momentum is back on the Liberal side.

But let’s talk again in seven days and see where we’re at then.  Because a week can be a lifetime in… well, you know the drill.