A funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box last week: against all predictions, Ontario has a majority government. It is getting so that the only reliable prediction in provincial elections is that the result will be unpredictable.
The Ontario Liberal campaign strategy is getting a lot of applause. But it actually was surprisingly simple: consolidate the left by building fear about the consequences of a Conservative government led by Tim Hudak. The Tories played into this – as they have in each of the last three provincial elections – by proposing an incoherent policy platform. Meanwhile, the NDP felt they could get through the election on the strength of Andrea Horwath’s smile, but Liberal strategy played out a little differently than they might have assumed. Although the NDP vote, and seats, went up marginally, it was the Tory-Liberal switchers who swung towards the Liberals, giving Kathleen Wynne a majority.
We can now expect the Liberals to attempt the same strategy at the federal level in a little more than a year from now. But there are some important considerations which lead me to believe that the outcome for the Conservatives can be different.
One of the most important predictors of voting intentions is the measure of the intensity of the public’s appetite for change. Based upon H+K’s early Ontario election survey, the table was set for a change in government in Ontario. The data also said the type of change mattered – Ontarians were looking for good governance, not radical change. But instead of focusing on Liberal mismanagement and corruption, Hudak offered up a wedge-inspired platform that looked incoherent as an economic blueprint for change. In doing so, he replicated the election faux pas of both the left and the right in the two previous elections. Then-Conservative leader John Tory’s attempt to appeal to new Canadians by funding all religious schools made about as much economic sense as Tim Hudak’s 100,000 job cuts. The public saw that and this trumped the appetite for change.
So far, the federal Conservatives – even after eight years of power – still receive relatively good ratings for governance, despite the Senate Scandal and other occasionally flare-ups. There is no overall mood among the public for change and, with only one year to go before an election, there is no reason to believe this will shift. This is unless the Conservatives overplay their hand in a way that moves the ballot question from one about good governance to some controversial issue. Whether it was the Ontario PC’s 100,000 public sector job cuts, the Partie Quebecois’ separatist agenda, volatile Wild Rose candidates or the B.C. NDP’s anti-pipeline policy, all of these parties lost the election because they made themselves the issue.
The Harper government has a very strong economic track record. Jobs, economic security, growth and wealth creation are the Tories’ strong points. The key for them will be to stick to this agenda and to look for opportunities to exploit the mistakes of an inexperienced and impulsive Liberal leader, as it is becoming very obvious that, despite the initial excitement about Justin Trudeau, he is not showing Canadians that he has the gravitas to lead the country yet.
The Liberals will try to run Trudeau in a policy bubble, much like the Horwath campaign did. However, there are too many opportunities in an election campaign for leaders to make mistakes – especially inexperienced ones. The Conservatives should not force the issue. Instead, they should run on their experience and their track record, and wait to pounce on Trudeau when he makes a mistake.
For now, the mood for change is not strong. The federal Conservatives need to take a page from the Ontario Liberals’ strategy: stick to your agenda and wait for your opponents to make a mistake.