Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
With the legislating on hold for the summer and the electioneering still sputtering to life, it’s time to speculate on whether the McGuinty government has any hope of achieving a rare third consecutive term as the provincial government.
There must be some grim faces in the premier’s office these days. After all, everyone in punditland knows that come the sixth of October, McGuinty and Co. will be just a short blurb in the “Ontario governments” Wikipedia entry.
There’s plenty of evidence to back this view up. The premier’s approval rating most recently came in at a dismal 19%, and his party trails TIm Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives among decided voters with 34% to the Tories’ 40%. (No evidence of an Orange Crush yet: the NDP have about 20% support province-wide.)
While RMS Grit may not have iceberged out yet, some of the passengers have grabbed their valuables and are headed for the lifeboats. Eleven of 71 Liberal MPPs have already announced they won’t be running for re-election, including high profile cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello.
And of course, there’s the Ontario public’s current infatuation with the right, in the form of last October’s GTA Ford-pocalypse, and more recently seen in Stephen Harper’s crop of new MPs, including a number in the one-time Liberal fortress of Toronto. It seems that after eight years of small-l liberal spending, McGuinty no longer resonates with an electorate humming along to the Tory fat-cutting song.
The Liberal response to their declining fortunes looks more desperate than measured. Last week the premier announced a program that would provide eyeglasses for kids in junior kindergarten at minimal expense to the taxpayer, a worthy initiative because it’s never too early to see the blackboard or to self-identify as a target for playground bullies, but one which will have a day-to-day impact on only a minimal number of Ontarians. He’s also rolling out the idea of giving refunds for late GO trains, an impractical but not impossible notion that is oddly timed, given that in the last three years GO’s on-time rate has gone from 87% to 95%.
These kind of dimestore feel-good plays won’t turn the tide, although if the polls don’t improve the Grits may soon be offering to send an MPP around to wax your car.
Sensing weakness, the PC marketing jackals have moved in for the kill early. Starting the night of the Stanley Cup final, Hudak’s team have been running ads naming McGuinty “the Taxman,” which they hope will become a central meme of the campaign. The label is a brazen bit of sophistry, since Hudak has no intention of dropping the eco and healh taxes for which he lambastes the Liberals, and won’t be able to follow through on his promise to axe the provincial portion of the HST from our energy bills. Nonetheless, it’s a damn fine sound bite (if a second rate Beatles song) and right now it looks to be working.
We’ve got more than three months until election day, but is that enough time for McGuinty to pull the Liberals’ chestnuts out of the fire?
Maybe, if they play their cards right.
Firstly, they should stop fighting the last election by trying to create a link in the public mind between Hudak and Mike Harris. Voters have the attention span of a golden retriever, and they’re a lot less loyal. Nobody is thinking about the Harris years, and there is a sizable chunk of the electorate who are not as concerned about service cuts so much as they’re in a mood to punish what they see as fat and greedy public service unions. Besides, Tory strategists have already blunted this approach by promising to continue spending lavishly on healthcare and education, while still paying down the deficit and reducing taxes (that this is impossible isn’t relevant in the world of political spin,)
Nope, hitting the PCs on the Harris record isn’t going to work.
Grit spinmeisters need to promote the idea that they are not fiscally irresponsible. They can start by noting that Ontario did manage three years of balanced budgets [PDF] until the financial crisis hit in 2008 (that’s not to say the Liberals weren’t spending like Charlie Sheen in a Bangkok rub-n-tug, because they were, they just had the benefit of of spectacular increases in tax revenue during those years. The Tories did the same thing in the ’90s.) They’ll also need to fight the “tax and spend” image, committing at the very least to a moratorium on new taxes.
Dalton McGuinty himself will have to appear more accessible and man-of-the-people-ish, instead of always coming across as surprised and vaguely aggrieved that people don’t realize how much the Liberals have done for them. Maybe he can borrow a sweater and a kitten from Stephen Harper.
It may be that nothing will help; that the zeitgeist has turned blue and the only thing to do is get out of the way of the Conservative steamroller. But there’s a whole summer before the election, and the Tories shouldn’t start popping the champagne corks yet.