Where has the centre gone in Ontario politics?

By Steve Paikin - Published on May 7, 2018
Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath, Mike Schreiner
Is there anyone willing to take the political centre in the upcoming Ontario election? (Justin Tang/Frank Gunn/CP; Fred Lum/G&M; A.V. Elkaim/CP)

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​I’ve written in this space before that the 2018 Ontario election campaign presents voters with one of the starkest choices they’ve ever had to make. It’s hard to remember a provincial campaign that’s featured two leaders so diametrically opposed to each other — in policy and in personality — as Kathleen Wynne and Doug Ford.

But let’s take our exploration of this election to another level. It is one of the most basic truisms of Ontario campaigns that they are almost always won by the party that convinces voters it represents the broadest possible swath of the middle of the political spectrum.

How far back should we go? Well, why not to the beginning of the Progressive Conservative dynasty, which began during World War II. In 1943, the Tories had a 49-year-old war veteran named George Drew (born 124 years ago today) as their leader. He was the first politician to speak of a “Big Blue Machine,” one that would fan out across the province, capturing constituency after constituency. And for the next 42 years, that’s pretty much what happened. The Tories occupied the broad middle of the political spectrum. To their left was the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation — the party that in the early 1960s would morph into the NDP. The Liberals were, despite their name, a more rural, conservative party.

As long as the Tories could hang on to the middle, thereby splitting the votes of their critics between the other two parties, they could continue to win elections. And that’s what they did, on 12 consecutive occasions between 1943 and 1985.

But in ’85, the Tories veered from their winning formula. They chose Muskoka businessman Frank Miller as their leader to replace Bill Davis, who’d been premier for almost 14 years. Miller was an unabashed admirer of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and he aimed to take the PCs much further to the right than previous red Tory leaders had preferred.

As a result, the middle opened up, and David Peterson moved his Liberal charges right into the gap that Miller’s Tories had vacated. Peterson won the most votes in the 1985 campaign (although not the most seats), and with then-NDP leader Bob Rae’s assistance, toppled the Tories.

So, for the longest time, being seen to be in the middle, where most voters also see themselves, has been a prerequisite to electoral victory. Even Mike Harris’s right-wing shift in 1995 was couched in the moderate language of “Common Sense,” and it came at a time when many voters felt that the NDP government of the day had moved the province too far to the left.

The pattern continued in 2003, when Dalton McGuinty successfully planted the Liberal flag back in the moderate middle, as the NDP were seen as too left-wing and the PCs too far to the right.

One of the things that makes this 2018 election campaign so interesting is that none of the major political parties today seems at all interested in seizing the middle. Both the Liberals and the New Democrats are vying to be the more left-wing party, each trying to offer a more interventionist platform than the other. And curiously, the PCs under Doug Ford seem content to define their conservatism in more right-wing, populist terms — consistent with the new leader’s “Ford Nation” branding.

Ironically, this opens up a large gap in the middle where pollsters tell us elections are usually won. Former PC leader Patrick Brown understood this: he tried to coax his fellow Tories away from the fringes and more toward the centre of the political spectrum. He was mostly successful at doing so, although the hold-outs (social conservatives, anti-carbon-tax types, etc.) certainly made lots of noise.

Andrea Horwath also understood that in 2014, when she tried to move her party toward the middle by offering tax cuts to small businesses and promising to find $600 million in spending cuts — two very un-NDP-like planks in the platform. Her problem was, she couldn’t bring her troops along with her. Too many NDP grassroots members don’t care about winning but about staying true to their socialist principles. That’s perfectly fine, except that the disconnect was apparent for all to see — and it hurt Horwath’s chances of winning.

In fairness, Ford is in some senses trying to have it both ways. He wants to stay true to his populist, right-wing roots, while at the same time flirting with more moderate Ontarians. That’s surely why he backtracked on his pledge to allow development in the Greenbelt and has tried to assure people that if he wins, there will be no massive downsizing of the public sector — something that former PC leader Tim Hudak pledged to do during the 2014 campaign.

Nevertheless, Ford’s core message of tax cuts, taking a step back on fighting climate change, and finding billions of dollars in so-called efficiencies has left many in the centre at best suspicious and at worst alarmed.

So, strangely enough, we basically seem to have an election coming with two social-democratic parties on the left and one right-wing populist party on the right. Where do all those disenfranchised blue Grits and red Tories mark their “X” on the ballot? To be sure, some will vote for the Green Party, which has tried to advance some centrist policies — but the Greens have neither the money nor the megaphone to cut through. Others will probably stay home. I’ve talked to many Liberals who say they cannot vote for Wynne again, and I’ve talked to many Tories who say Ford is an impossible choice for them.

It’s certainly a strange political phenomenon when none of the major players seems to want to follow a tried, tested, and true formula for victory.

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