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Fowler: Last Liberal Standing

September 30, 2011

The Premier is the last obstacle to complete Conservative domination of government.

In April 2010, Bob Hepburn wrote in the Toronto Star that the McGuinty government was, “the only activist government in Canada today.” As Stephen Harper cemented his control at the federal level and populist conservatives began winning races everywhere from Saskatchewan to Toronto, it seemed only a matter of time until Dalton “Tax Man” McGuinty would fall to the wrath of squeezed voters seeking relief in the form of Tory leader Tim Hudak. With the provincial election less than a week away, McGuinty has become the last true liberal standing in Canada, and Ontario voters will decide whether they want a check on the Prime Minister’s power or monolithic conservative control of government.

Mr. McGuinty’s record is, by most any measure, activist. His policies on education have given Ontario the distinction of having one of the best public school systems in the world. His investments in health care have brought Ontario surgical wait times from the longest in Canada when he took office to the shortest today. And his Green Energy Act recently led David Suzuki to endorse his re-election, applauding, “the future he’s leading us into.” These policies are clearly not meant to appeal to the voters who elected Rob Ford and the federal Tories, whose main focus revolved on keeping taxes and regulations low. However, Mr. McGuinty has also received pushback from some progressives in the province, who have since flocked to the NDP, for the HST and corporate tax cuts. Thus, despite the premier’s unparalleled progressive record, he risks falling into the same trap that ensnared the far more moderate Michael Ignatieff in the federal election: desertion to the NDP on his left flank, allowing a smaller but determined right-wing opposition to wipe him out.

So far Mr. McGuinty appears to be holding his own. Andrea Horwath’s attempts to move the provincial NDP to the center has led many on the left, especially those concerned about the environment (like the aforementioned Mr. Suzuki) and education (the Ontario Teacher’s Union), to conclude that Mr. McGuinty is the best choice for progressive voters, something Jack Layton never allowed a Liberal leader to do. He is statistically tied with Mr. Hudak in the polls, and due to the more efficient geographic spread of Liberal voters he would likely form government if such polls prove to be accurate. The key to Mr. McGuinty’s argument is the upcoming health summit in 2014. At campaign stops he brings up how he negotiated the original deal with then Prime Minister Paul Martin, and that having Tim Hudak sit across the table from Mr. Harper would inevitably lead, at minimum, to cuts in health care funding. Sensing that nothing better illustrates the perils of electing the Progressive Conservatives, McGuinty has campaigned recently on his stature as a strong leader looking out for Ontario; one who will defend public health care and win concessions for the province, positioning himself as the last champion of Canadian liberalism.

The decline of Liberal fortunes in Canada can reasonably be traced back to Pierre Trudeau’s entrenchment of the Charter without Quebec’s consent, but the seeds did not become apparent until the middle of the last decade. With the uniting of the two federal conservative parties in 2003, the electorate that had given Jean Chretien three consecutive majority governments began seven years of political gridlock and perpetual minority parliaments. With the recent decimation of the federal Liberal Party, it looks quite probable that the next era of Canadian politics will be dominated by western oriented Conservatives with brief interruptions of NDP government based in Quebec. Along with liberal Toronto’s recent election of right-wing Rob Ford, McGuinty has used the specter of a conservative trifecta (or “hat trick”, as Mr. Harper recently mused) to make Ontarians think about the consequences of one party rule. In this 11th hour of Canadian liberalism, only the red silhouette of Dalton McGuinty remains to stem the blue tide sweeping the country.


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