June 11, 2014 3:22 pm

Ontario election: Does anyone really care?

Photographs of the empty legislature at Queens Park on Oct 16 2012.

Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Election Day minus one 2014 dawned grey, rainy and passionless.

Riding a taxi to Queen’s Park to catch the PC media bus I reflected upon the five previous provincial elections I have covered—each in its own way packed with enthusiasm, import and  meaning.

My sixth is as dreary and dispiriting as the weather for the final day of campaigning.

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In my few days following Tim Hudak I have noted a curious lack of energy. In his second run as leader he is exceptionally disciplined and on message, resolutely flashing smiles and resisting any attempt by reporters to drag out a comment that might stray a millimetre off the million jobs mantra.  He is trying.

But at each stop the tone has been muted, the cheers from supporters feeling forced.  On my first day with Hudak at the beginning of the campaign, he made a stop at a factory in Brantford where as far as I could tell he spoke to exactly one worker.

This week my colleague John Ivison from Postmedia is also on the bus and more than once has remarked to me with a quizzical look how small the crowds seem to be—and for a Tory leader who has a fighting chance to become the next premier.

This is not to single out Tim Hudak.

Read More: Here’s what you need to vote on election day

I have not been on the Liberal bus but for me the lasting image of their campaign is Kathleen Wynne fumbling her lines in the TV debate as she gamely, repeatedly and ineffectually apologized for the misdeeds of the gas plant scandal.  As bad as it looked, the damage may have been mitigated because voters have simply started to tune out on the issue—scarcely an inspiring scenario.

Similarly I have not been present at any Andrea Horwath events, but the only real passion I detected from the ranks of the left was in an interview with former candidate Judy Rebick who joked ruefully that she planned to start a twitter hashtag: “where’s the ONDP?”

A couple of days later she was among a group of disillusioned New Democrats who sent an open letter of complaint to Horwath about the leader’s attempt to move the party to the centre—and were rewarded by an avalanche of snark on twitter and elsewhere that branded them all as anachronistic gadflies.

My first provincial election was in 1987, when David Peterson seemed like the fresh, vigourous face of a new Ontario—blowing out the cobwebs of 42 years of Tory rule.  It was a triumphant cakewalk as he rose from a minority to a thumping majority.

In 1990, I was with Peterson again for one of the most shocking results in modern Canadian history when the electorate rose up in anger against a cynical attempt to hold onto power through an early election call.  It was a study in political disaster as we watched the wheels fall off the Liberal campaign and Bob Rae’s NDP winning an unlikely majority.

Global News staff members including Sean Mallen at David Peterson’s 1990 headquarters shortly after he conceded on election night.

Sharon Murphy / Global News

In 1995, Rae’s own daughter told Toronto Life magazine that he was “toast” before the writ was even dropped.  He knew he had lost before he started but at event after event in the closing days he gave the most stunning series of stem-winding speeches I have ever seen.  The rooms were ever smaller as crowds were dwindling, but the soon to be ex-premier railed with true fire against what Mike Harris was about to unleash upon Ontario.

Harris and his Tories built a new coalition of the right that transformed the province, won him two elections and made Queen’s Park a hotbed of contention.  Love him or hate him, politics mattered. People cared.  Not now.

Read More: Haven’t paid attention to the campaign? Here’s a cheat sheet

I was out of the country for the 2011 race, which produced the lowest voter turnout in Ontario history: 48.2 per cent.  Advance polling numbers for 2014 are down, suggesting even fewer people may cast ballots this time. Some of the most disinterested voters are in the sprawling suburban ridings of 905, which may well decide who wins.  We may have MPPs elected with perhaps 38 per cent of ballots cast, in ridings where 60 per cent of the people did not even bother exercising their democratic right.

In the face of these dismal numbers the two parties contending for government spent their final day of campaigning accusing each other of dirty tricks—scarcely a new tactic, but nothing that would do anything to build voter engagement.

One of the Hudak campaign’s final stops was in Kitchener-Waterloo, a closely-fought race where the Tories hope to win back a seat that the NDP took away in a by-election. The media bus arrived early, so it parked at a mall to wait until the event was to begin.

Cameraman Adam Dabrowski and I stepped off and met a motivated voter named Chris Martin.  He is a social worker who takes his democratic franchise seriously and would be turning up at his polling station—but only to make a statement of protest.

“I’m going to be declining my ballot because none of the parties are worth voting for,” he said.

“It’s kind of sad actually because for the first time in my life I felt disconnected.”

In Depth: Ontario Election 2014

At his final question and answer session with reporters, I asked Hudak whether he and the other political leaders bore any responsibility for an election in which less than half of the eligible voters may be casting a ballot.

“Well, let’s see how many people get out and vote and who they choose at 9:01 Thursday night,” he said.

“But I’ve run a campaign I’m proud of because it’s a campaign of hope.”

If he does not win, it may well be his final one.   Since 1990, through a parade of different leaders among the major parties, none has been able to arrest the steady downward trend in turnout.  Neither Hudak, Horwath nor Wynne seem poised to turn it around.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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