Published Feb. 4, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record.
Surely everyone has heard of the ancient Chinese curse that translated loosely says, “May you live in interesting times.”
In fact, the curse may actually be of English, not Chinese, origin and it may have started out as a proverb rather than a curse. But no matter. Everyone has heard of it — certainly everyone at Queen’s Park these days.
Ontario politics have a reputation for being somewhat predictable. Some might describe them as an especially boring shade of grey. But no longer. No one — not the players or the pundits — has the faintest idea how the next few weeks and months may unfold. Any day could bring a surprise.
Interesting? More like fascinating.
All we can say with confidence is that Ontario is under new management. Kathleen Wynne will be sworn in as premier next Monday. She will appoint a cabinet. They will meet the Legislature eight days later, on Feb. 19. What will happen then is anyone’s guess.
It seems reasonable to assume that Wynne, as leader of a minority government, will be anxious to avoid an early election. There’s not much polling data yet to draw on, but what there is suggests her personal popularity is high, higher than Andrea Horwath of the NDP (who places second) or Tim Hudak of the Progressive Conservatives (in third) — and higher, certainly, than the popularity of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
Wynne’s popularity may be fleeting — about what one would expect for any new leader emerging from a highly publicized leadership convention. So far, her popularity does not seem to be translating into public support for her Liberals. One poll suggests the party under Wynne is still in third place (with the Tories in first) while another poll puts the three parties duking it out within the margin of error.
To avoid an election, Wynne will have look to Horwath and the NDP. To complicate matters, the two leaders are simultaneously natural allies and natural rivals. They are natural allies to the extent that both are at home in the centre-left of the political spectrum. But they are also rivals who must fish in the same pool of moderate or progressive voters.
Their dance will be a delicately calibrated minuet. Horwath will have to calculate how far she can push Wynne for concessions without pushing her into an election that could bring Hudak to power. For her part, Wynne will have to calculate how much she can afford to give Horwath without losing her own claim to be the voice of the moderate left.
On one level, these interesting times will be more predictable for Tim Hudak. He has the right side of the spectrum to himself. He can be expected to oppose anything Wynne or Wynne/Horwath try to do. His single objective is an election.
He will be operating on two assumptions. First, that the people of Ontario are so fed up with the Liberals that they will welcome the opportunity to complete the housecleaning they began in October 2011. Second, that the Conservative lead in the polls will convert into votes and seats in an election.
Hudak, however, may find both assumptions to be fallacious. I’m reminded of Ottawa in December 1979 when the minority Tory government of Joe Clark made two fatal miscalculations. They assumed the small Social Credit caucus was so terrified of an election that it would not dare to vote with the Liberals and NDP against Finance Minister John Crosbie’s budget. That proved wrong. The Tories also assumed that if the new government fell, the public would be so outraged that it would punish the Liberals by electing a majority Conservative government. Instead, the voters went back to the Liberals (who seemed competent if not lovable) and handed Pierre Trudeau a majority.
Those were interesting times in Ottawa, just as these promise to be interesting times at Queen’s Park. Interesting for all the anxious political players, not to mention the confused corps of political pundits.