When Forum Research released a public opinion survey earlier this month, most people were so intrigued by the huge lead the Ontario PC party enjoyed over the governing Liberals they may have missed another emerging story.
The Liberals’ fall has been so precipitous, they’re now neck-and-neck with the New Democratic Party: if an election were held today each would garner about a quarter of the vote. The NDP hasn’t been truly competitive in Ontario politics for a very long time. Should their proximity to the Liberals give them cause for hope?
Only once in Ontario history has the NDP ever formed a government. It was in 1990, when the electorate wanted to punish the Liberals for an early election call — only three years into what were then five-year terms — but the public wasn’t yet ready to put the PCs back into office, having chucked them out just five years earlier.
Thus 37.6 per cent of the electorate decided to take a flyer on the NDP, and thanks to some very felicitous vote splits in our first-past-the-post system, that was enough for the party to win a majority and make Bob Rae premier.
Today, New Democrats are wondering whether, once again, they can position themselves as the alternative to the governing Liberals, should the public want a new party in power in 2018.
At the moment, the Tories are the clear alternative. Notwithstanding leader Patrick Brown’s mess dealing with the new sex-ed curriculum, the PCs captured a perennially safe Liberal seat in the Scarborough-Rouge River byelection, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them win another traditionally safe Liberal seat in Ottawa-Vanier, when that riding's byelection is called.
The NDP is also entitled to feel that it’s on a bit of a roll. After campaigning hard to drop the harmonized sales tax on electricity bills and make power a little more affordable, the Liberal government adopted that policy in its recent speech from the throne. Then yesterday the government introduced the proposed All Families Are Equal Act, which would grant equal parental rights regardless of gender — something NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has been championing for LGBTQ residents for years.
The NDP also has more experience in its leader’s office now, in the lead-up to the 2018 election. Shortly after their disappointing results in the last election, Andrea Horwath appointed Michael Balagus as her chief of staff — a role he once performed for former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer. Not to be snide, but like most New Democratic Party backroom types, Balagus has had his share of losses. However, unlike most NDP backroomers, he’s also had his share of victories. He’ll be the strategic brain behind the 2018 campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see how he changes tack from the much-maligned strategy of 2014. Last time out, the NDP campaign was criticized for its lack of vision, abandoning its historical left wing positioning on the political spectrum and offering, of all things, tax cuts for businesses — not a traditional NDP policy.
One thing he’ll have going for him is a well-known, well-liked leader in Horwath, who has already led the party through two provincial campaigns.
That’s the upside of where the NDP is today.
The downside is the sad history that usually plays out among left-leaning voters. The party often starts out competitive with the Liberals, only to fade as the campaign progresses, and progressive voters choose the one party they hope can stop the “evil, ideological Conservatives.” That strategic vote almost always benefits the Grits, as it surely did in 2014, helping Kathleen Wynne win a majority government.
Come to think of it, even when the NDP has been in first place in the polls, as it was during last year’s federal election for a time, the Liberals still seem to be the default option for strategic voters determined to stop the Conservatives.
If the current NDP brain trust can’t figure out how to stop that seeming inevitability, the party faithful can only look forward to another third-place finish, and the satisfaction once again of being the conscience of the legislature.
But if the public has decided the Liberals are done, and the Tories aren’t that scary (or ready to govern with their 38-year-old leader), could the third time be the charm for Horwath?
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