One overlooked issue that cost the Liberals the election

OPINION: Analysts will be debating the reasons for the Liberals’ collapse for years to come, but one thing is clear — parties ignore voters’ pocketbooks at their peril, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 12, 2018
When the Liberals ran in 2003 on a promise to phase out coal power, they didn’t tell voters that doing so would send hydro prices skyrocketing. (Frank Gunn/CP)



Pundits and politicos will be poring over the results of last Thursday’s election for years to come, looking for answers to any number of questions — but one is undoubtedly more important than the rest: What, exactly, led to the near-annihilation of the Liberals at the polls? It’s one thing for a governing party to be defeated in an election after 15 years in power, but what explains its having been reduced to the lowest share of the popular vote in its history and winning only seven seats?

Everyone has their pet theories, running from simple voter fatigue, to homophobia and misogyny against Kathleen Wynne personally. But there’s a more basic yet comprehensive hypothesis that deserves some consideration: the Liberals simply didn’t take day-to-day affordability as seriously as they should have, across numerous policy files.

The most obvious example is hydro prices. The Liberals have justified the run-up in electricity prices by saying it was the cost of closing Ontario’s coal-fired generating stations. However, the auditor general’s office (through two different auditors, in 2011 and 2015) has said that Liberal renewable-energy policies were actually responsible. But even if we set aside the argument of which particular energy-policy decisions were responsible, the Liberal explanation needs to be teased out a little.

After all, when the Liberals ran in 2003 on a promise to phase out coal power, they didn’t tell voters that doing so would send hydro prices skyrocketing. Instead, they assured Ontarians that while coal power was being replaced with renewable energy, the government would reduce hydro bills by 5 per cent. Greener energy, cleaner environment, cheaper power. Who could possibly object?

Well, it turns out that when the bill comes due and only two of the three parts of the plan come true, a lot of people can object. It’s not that the Liberals didn’t care about cheap energy per se — it’s just that there were tons of other priorities: the aforementioned coal plants, for instance, and building an Ontario green-energy industry. They never paid the same amount of attention to keeping prices low.

Housing policy tells a similar story. The Liberals are justifiably proud of their decision to create the Greenbelt and the accompanying Growth Plan, which were intended to curb sprawl and preserve green space and watersheds across the Greater Toronto region. These policies remain incredibly popular — so much so that one of Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford’s missteps in the pre-election period was initially defending his proposal to open up the Greenbelt for development. (In less than 24 hours, the public outcry was sufficient to force a reversal.)

Without re-litigating the fraught question of whether the Greenbelt is itself responsible for the housing crisis in the GTA, it’s sufficient to say that the Liberals have not kept the cost of housing top of mind as they’ve constrained sprawl, added more powers for municipalities to put the costs of infrastructure on new housing, and given cities a stronger hand at the Ontario Municipal Board (which they did even before they gutted the OMB last year). They may care about housing costs, but those always ended up being a secondary priority when there were other, higher-profile, issues to deal with.

Even more confounding, it’s not like Ontarians were paying some objective “true cost” for either hydro or housing when the Liberals took over in 2003: both had been implicitly and explicitly subsidized long before Dalton McGuinty led his party back to government. Any effort to rationalize the province’s policies was going to be more expensive than the status quo the Liberals had inherited. The danger is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if good policy is necessarily going to increase prices, governments can lose sight of the fact that higher prices aren’t themselves a good thing.

And there’s something else that electricity and housing policy have in common. It’s extremely easy, in both cases, for policymakers to tell themselves that any one change in policy will have only a small incremental effect. The problem is that over the course of 15 years, the Liberals were responsible for dozens of small, incremental changes that added costs to the system in both areas. Eventually, it all added up to a lot.

Both files had gotten badly away from the Liberals by 2016 and 2017, and in 2018, they paid the political price. The Tories are loudly committed to pocketbook issues, and both energy and housing policy are likely to be priorities as they look at their agenda for the new government. But the sudden collapse of one of Ontario’s main political parties contains a warning for any government: keeping the cost of living under control is a core part of politics, and environmentally sustainable policies need to be economically sustainable if they’re going to be politically sustainable.

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