Your guide to Ontario’s political polarization (have fun governing that)

ABOVE: Despite the headaches facing her majority government, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne struck an optimistic tone following her swearing in Tuesday at Queen’s Park

Majority or no, Premier Kathleen Wynne has inherited a headache to govern – a province deeply divided along not only urban-rural lines, but between immigrant communities and white, Canadian-born areas; between car-drivers and transit-users; between those with a university education and those without.

The Premier who made herself Agriculture Minister to allay fears she was too Toronto-centric is now effectively Premier of Ottawa and the GTA.

“Ontario is such a diverse entity, and … traditional interregional rivalries are exacerbated by a fairly moribund economy and a fiscal situation that isn’t exactly bouyant, and there are some daunting challenges out there,” said Ekos analyst Frank Graves.

The good news is, Wynne’s majority gives her four years to maneuver, to rebuild her party’s tattered ethical reputation and to win the trust, if not the support, of Ontarians who didn’t vote for her this time around.

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“If they’re smart,” says Ipsos’s John Wright, “they’re going to try and be out in other parts of the province.”

Meanwhile, he said, that gives the Tories four years to come up with something more appealing than Mike Harris Redux, and the NDP time to decide if they like the populist centre and how to sell that to the lefty urbanists who abandoned them this year.

Here’s a rough idea of what they’re dealing with:

The data

Global News analysis of the election’s results show a demographic rift that’s deepened since the 2011 election.

That gulf is clear when you look at riding density, with the Liberals dominating denser ridings and the Progressive Conservatives shut out of urban and suburban areas they’d won before.

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“The decisive factor, regionally, was Toronto,” Graves said. “It’s a very Toronto-centric constitutency that propelled Wynne to the majority.”

The province’s demographic gulf also evident when it comes to university education: The more university grads in a riding, the more likely it was to vote Liberal.

Wynne won favour with the highly educated, with women, with young people and with baby boomers, Graves said – the last of which PC leader Tim Hudak would’ve hoped to woo. “But it looked like he hit some real wobbles in the final stages of the campaign,” Graves said.

And, signficantly for a party that’s so far failed to capitalize on its federal counterpart’s gains among some new Canadians, the Tories remain shut out of immigrant communities: This is still a white person’s party.

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The province’s most mobile communities are now predominantly Liberal.

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People who commute by car voted overwhelmingly for the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the NDP.

While transit-using communities voted Liberal.

And, while there’s no strong relationship between riding income and winning party, ridings that went Liberal or NDP had higher percentages of people reporting lower income. (Conversely, the ridings with the highest share of residents receiving voter assistance were least likely to vote Liberal)

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The Thornhill exception

The province’s standout riding is Thornhill: It’s the most urban, educated, diverse, transit-loving, immigrant-heavy Progressive Conservative riding in Ontario.

And it was also their squeakiest win. The riding looked like it belonged to Liberal candidate Sandra Yeung Racco by a mere 85 votes.

But within 48 hours, Elections Ontario clarified: They’d got it backwards. Thornhill remains PC territory, and rookie incumbent Gila Martow, who won former MPP Peter Shurman’s seat in a byelection earlier this year, remains victorious.

“I should probably take credit for that. But I can’t,” she said in an interview. “I think we had a great team.”

That said, Martow’s victory is a riding-level, candidate-specific victory, rather than a vindication of a party she admits has image problems in urban areas.

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“There’s something different about Thornhill,” she says, pointing to its multifarious Jewish, Korean, Chinese and Filipino communities – many of them highly educated, small-c conservatives. “I’m glad I was able to pull through in a Liberal sweep.

“A lot of the votes were less about the PC party and more about the fact that I’ve been writing for local newspapers for many years. … I think I was known as a community person and I think when push came to shove people voted for the person they knew in their community.”

Ontario PC candidate for Thornhill Gila Martow celebrates a victory in the Thornhill by-election with her son Evan, right, onThursday night, February 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

The takeaway

So is it curtains for  Tories in urban Ontario? And will that push to the province’s demographic hinterland only worsen as Ontario becomes more urban, more diverse and new ridings favour the same fast-growing suburbs the PCs couldn’t win?

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Not necessarily: Graves sees these results as more the repudiation of an idea, rather than a party.

The campaign, he argues, presented “a very clear choice between two quite contradictory visions about how to produce a prosperous economy and a healthy society.”

The Tories “can’t win with their current messaging and the leader who was in place,” Graves said. But “I still think that, in a world where you’ve got the progressive vote split between three parties in Ontario, the Conservatives can certainly still win.”

And Martow, now positioning herself as the opposition’s new GTA critic, thinks she has a lot to teach her party.

“We have an image problem. … We have to work on our branding, work on our image, because the unions did a great job at convincing the public that we don’t support public service or health care or education,” she said.

“Absolutely, it’s possible” to overcome that,” Martow added. “And I’m glad I’m going to be there to help them.”

Note: In all cases but density and median age, demographic information has been taken from Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey. As our coverage has indicated, the results of this voluntary survey are extremely flawed. For many of these indicators, however, this is the only riding-level data we have. Please interpret with several grains of salt.


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