Ontario’s Liberals and New Democrats have a problem: they’re in a tight battle for the same group of voters. And that means they could both end up losing the election.
A quick reminder: for 42 straight years (from 1943 to 1985), the Progressive Conservatives ruled Ontario by skillfully keeping the anti-Tory vote more or less evenly divided between the Liberals and the New Democrats. When the Liberals got too strong, at the expense of the NDP, Tory governments would actually propose policies that the NDP could take credit for, thereby boosting support for the social democratic party. Think rent control or the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway.
But in 1985, the political dynamic that had kept the Tories in power for so long disappeared. And for most of the past three decades, the Liberals have been content to occupy the “radical middle,” providing activist but relatively centrist policy options during both the David Peterson and Dalton McGuinty years. Yes, the party took some interventionist positions. But it also cut corporate taxes significantly and unilaterally abrogated collective agreements with teacher unions as a deficit-fighting measure.
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But after becoming premier in 2013, Kathleen Wynne took the Liberals much further to the left — further even than the NDP went during the 2014 election campaign.
The strategy paid off for Wynne four years ago. But many would now say that the Liberals and the New Democrats are essentially indistinguishable. It’s a much easier task today for the PCs to split the anti-Tory vote evenly between the Liberals and New Democrats than it was in decades past, because the policy planks of the two parties have never been more similar.
Last year, both parties unveiled pharmacare plans within days of each other. Yes, the plans are different. The Liberal plan covers many more drugs (more than 4,000) but for far fewer people (under-25s only). The NDP would cover far fewer drugs (125) but do so for everyone. But the fact is, whether you call it OHIP+ (the Liberal plan) or Pharmacare for Everyone (the NDP plan), both plans would represent a historic expansion of Medicare through drug coverage.
Both parties also have dental-care plans on offer that would, to a greater or lesser extent, cover those trips to the dentist that many Ontarians currently can’t afford.
On post-secondary education, the Liberals got out there first with “free” tuition for college and university students from low-income households. But earlier this week, the NDP announced in its election platform that it’ll offer non-repayable grants (rather than loans) to every student who qualifies for student assistance. It’s also proposing to wipe out any student-loan interest owed or paid to the province by any current or past student still carrying a provincial loan.
There’s more. In their budget last month, the Liberals created two new income-tax brackets. The effect would be to raise millions more from higher-income earners. In its platform, the NDP went after the wealthy as well, promising to raise income taxes by one percentage point on those earning more than $220,000 per year, and two percentage points on those earning north of $300,000 per year. The NDP would also come after those who buy expensive cars, putting an additional tax on vehicles costing more than $90,000.
On child care, the Liberals are offering free daycare for all children between the ages of two and a half and kindergarten age. The NDP would make daycare free for all children below kindergarten age from families earning less than $40,000 a year and then charge an average of $12 a day for the kids of those earning more. (The higher the income, the more people would pay, although the party is still working out the details.)
In previous years, the NDP’s intense connection with and loyalty to the union movement might have created a significant difference between the two parties, but not anymore. The Liberals under Wynne have moved to the left to ensure deeper ties to the union movement, having even gone so far as to create a new provincial agency responsible for overseeing home care, and then to give the entire job to the Service Employees International Union. Some have alleged that the SEIU has therefore promised to put thousands of boots on the ground for the government in the upcoming election campaign. (Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU’s health-care division says “The idea that [union members] are all going to volunteer for any one political party is silly.”)
Yes, there are still some significant differences between the parties. The Liberals sold off 53 per cent of Hydro One; the NDP proposes to buy back all those shares to put the utility entirely back in public hands.
And while the Liberals have used public-private partnerships to build some of their most significant infrastructure projects, such as hospitals and public transit, the NDP would put those projects entirely on the province’s books, the idea being that those projects would be cheaper if the profit motive were eliminated and cheaper borrowing costs were negotiated.
It should also be said that Liberal and NDP members will argue that the policy differences I’ve outlined are much bigger than I’m suggesting. That might be true if you’re a wonk who’s steeped in the details. But how different are these policies really going to seem to the average voter?
What do the Tories make of all of this? They’re probably confident that they’ll be laughing all the way to the finish line. If they’re able to keep the centre-right vote all to themselves while the other two parties split the left-wing vote, the PCs will win elections 10 times out of 10 — as they did for 42 straight years.
After all, if one of the biggest differences between Liberals and New Democrats is one and a half points on the corporate income-tax rate (the Liberals would leave it where it is at 11.5 per cent, while the NDP would raise it to 13 per cent). Is that really a difference big enough to fight over while the Tories roll past both of them and into office?