The Ontario Liberal Party is having a tough time in the polls. Of course, that’s not a recent development: it’s been more than two years since the party held a lead in Forum Research surveys. In fact, the Liberals — beset by controversies from electricity pricing to treatment for autistic children — have struggled to stay out of third place no matter who’s asking the questions. The straits are dire enough that a former finance minister, Greg Sorbara, spoke bluntly on The Agenda last month about the need for change in the party’s leadership.
Since then things have gotten worse: last week, a Forum poll showed the Liberals aren’t just facing post-election political irrelevancy (they could lose their official party status). They’re also contending with the fact that Toronto — a bastion of Liberal support — is starting to look like just another part of Ontario. And Ontario isn’t terribly fond of the government.
This ought to set off alarms at Liberal HQ: in the previous Forum poll of Ontario voters, the Liberals did 10 points better with Toronto voters than they did with the rest of the province, even in the suburbs outside the city proper. (It’s worth being cautious about these numbers — the smaller regional samples bounce around more — but it’s true that in previous Forum polls, the Liberals have often enjoyed far more support inside Toronto than out.) Now, the city’s voters seem more willing to do the unthinkable: vote Progressive Conservative.
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But why is it so unthinkable in the first place? Twenty years ago this month, Mike Harris’s government pushed Bill 103 through the legislature, amalgamating the cities of Toronto, East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, and York into one “megacity.” An unsanctioned referendum showed that residents overwhelmingly opposed the forced marriage, but the bill passed anyway, without amendment — despite days of hearings during which opponents enumerated their criticisms of the plan.
Then, in the first week of April 1997, the New Democrats of the day put a temporary halt to the bill’s progress by introducing thousands of amendments to it. For 10 days, Queen’s Park did nothing but vote on amendment after amendment. It sounds tedious, but it wasn’t — even for someone (like me) who was in high school at the time. It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t there (or who aren’t politically attuned) what the fight against amalgamation meant for civic activism in Toronto, but details of the NDP’s obstruction really were conversation starters for a while. In the same way that Rob Ford’s mayoralty focused attention on city hall, the amalgamation battle woke many Torontonians up to provincial politics — and the reality that cities are at the mercy of Queen’s Park.
For the Tories, amalgamation was a pyrrhic victory. Majority governments always have an easy time getting bills passed (as Bill 103 did, on April 21, 1997), but Harris’s rough handling of Toronto left a sour taste in voters’ mouths — one that still hasn’t gone away. Even in the 1999 election, when the Tories beat the Grits handily, PC incumbents in Toronto were defeated by up-and-coming Liberals, some of whom — like Michael Bryant and George Smitherman — would eventually make it into Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet.
In 2003, the Tories were expelled from the city entirely. The new crop of Liberal MPPs back then included Kathleen Wynne, who entered politics in the first place to help fight the Harris government’s changes to municipalities and school boards.
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It’s been 20 years since amalgamation, and almost 15 since the 2003 election, yet the Tories have had a hard time winning even a single Toronto riding. They got former city councillor Doug Holyday elected in August 2013, but he didn’t make it even a full year, losing in the 2014 election. Raymond Cho currently flies the blue flag in his Scarborough riding.
This isn’t just a history lesson: the antipathy PCs have earned in Toronto has put 20-odd seats off-limits for four successive elections. The Liberals have been able to count on those seats almost without trying. In the last election, the party’s main objective in the 416 was to take downtown ridings like Trinity–Spadina and Davenport from the NDP, to round out their majority. As far as Toronto was concerned, the Tories might as well have been on the moon.
But the wheel keeps on turning: millennials are unlikely to remember Harris at all, much less the fight over amalgamation in Toronto (or other, similar fights that happened across the province). Even as the Liberals still, in 2017, answer opposition barbs in Question Period with recollections of the Big Bad Tories of yesteryear, voters seem to be moving on.
Maybe the Forum poll is wrong. Even if it’s right, there’s still more than a year to go till the next election — and the Tories have a history of torching their chances all on their own. Still, an election in which they actually have to try to win seats in Toronto is something the Liberals haven’t experienced in a generation.