Why voting patterns may not lead to a Conservative minority

The Liberal government is set to introduce a bill to freeze MPPs salaries for another five years.
Photographs of the empty legislature at Queens Park on Oct 16 2012. Fred Lum / File / The Globe and Mail

Historical voting patterns suggest that next month’s Ontario provincial election should be a lock for the Conservatives.

They are the most obvious alternative to a Liberal government that has been in power for three terms since 2003, when many governments rotate out of office after just two terms.  Moreover, the Liberals in power have been compromised by a number of scandals, notably the gas plant closures, ORNGE Air Ambulance, eHealth and Hydro One salaries.

However, polling evidence suggests that such an expectation is not matched by reality.  Despite their apparent eagerness for an election, the Conservative party under Tim Hudak has been unable to pull away from the Liberals in samplings of public opinion.

Moreover, given the popularity of NDP leader Andrea Horwath, neither party has been able to post numbers indicating they are within striking distance of a legislative majority.

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The recent Quebec vote reminds us that election campaigns can produce dramatic changes among the public, but as we enter the Ontario election contest, it appears possible that it might produce a result where nothing much changes from the past thirty months of minority government.

READ MORE: Hudak says Ontario election about one issue: jobs

Premier Kathleen Wynne, knowing that her administration’s survival depended upon NDP support tried to trap their loyalty with a budget agenda that could have been written by Horwath herself.

Already there are union spokesman upset by her rejection of the budgetary lure.  However, Horwath knew that she would be facing the electorate within a year or so anyhow and understood that third parties propping up governments frequently are blamed rather than credited by voters for this (witness the Liberal Democrats’ current predicament in Britain). The real challenge she faces is to distinguish herself effectively from the Liberal government she has supported.

Premier Wynne has signalled that she wants to make the budget the centrepiece of her election campaign and appears to have determined that an Ontario pension plan is popular with focus groups.  This issue has the additional attraction for her of being able to portray Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government as an opponent on the policy.  The best thing the Liberals have going for them is the unpopularity of the Conservative leader Tim Hudak, and his reflexive cost-cutting approach to governing.

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Ontario Election 2014: Full Coverage

His ideological approach might play well for the Tories in their rural and small city heartland, but they already have most of the electoral constituencies there sewn up and there aren’t many more to be gained.  If the Conservatives are to have a chance of gaining a parliamentary majority, they must be able to make a breakthrough in the Greater Toronto Area, particularly in sections like Mississauga and Brampton where they are currently shut out.  Political gains in this region were also critical to Stephen Harper’s majority back during the 2011 federal election.

That is undoubtedly the Conservative strategy, but Hudak, who blew an early lead during the previous provincial election, might not find that his hard-edged ideological approach is the best vehicle to accomplish this.  Voters in the large urban centres seem to be more concerned with government services, particularly transit, than those in smaller communities. In hindsight, a leader like John Tory might have been more effective in the GTA.

The direction of public opinion can yet change during the  campaign but at the moment the data are pointing to another minority government.  Whichever party between the Conservatives and Liberals wins more seats, in such a circumstance they are going to have to gain the support of another party.

Between Tim Hudak and Kathleen Wynne, who do you suppose Andrea Horwath is more likely to sustain?

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If Tim Hudak doesn’t emerge on June 12 with a functioning majority, his days as party leader are probably over.