Hudak needs a majority to stay afloat

Published May 8, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Historical voting patterns suggest next month’s Ontario provincial election should be a lock for the Progressive 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 have been compromised by a number of scandals, notably the gas plant closures, the air ambulance service Ornge, eHealth (Ontario’s electronic health records), and Hydro One salaries.

However, polling evidence suggests such an expectation is not matched by reality.

Despite their apparent eagerness for an election, the Conservatives under Leader Tim Hudak have 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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Ontario seat projection shows modest slide by NDP, gains by Tories

Published May 6, 2014, in Global News.

During the five weeks since the previous LISPOP provincial seat projection, the change in Ontario popular vote support has not moved dramatically. Indeed there has been only modest movement since the 2011 Ontario election. Since that last projection, the NDP has dropped three percentage points and the Conservatives have gained two percentage points, leaving them with a slight 1.5 point plurality over the Liberals among the approximately 5,000 respondents contacted in polling conducted over the past month. 

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Pension reform may be a winner for Wynne

Published Dec. 24, 2013, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his fiscal enforcer, Jim Flaherty, may have handed Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne the keys to a magic kingdom.

But this is not some Disney fantasyland. Rather, it is the world of majority government in Ontario.

The two keys the federal Conservatives have given the minority Liberal premier are, first, a popular election issue and, second, a convincing enemy to stand against.

That enemy is the government in Ottawa. Wynne doesn’t owe the feds any favours. She is free to run with the issue they have given her, and she can ignore Tiny Tim Hudak, the Ontario Tory leader. She can run against the big guys, the villains from Ottawa.

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The issue is pension reform. Or, as the Wynne Liberals will position it (if they are smart), the right of greying Ontario baby boomers, and soon-to-be boomers, to retire with dignity and with adequate support from the Canada Pension Plan — to which they have contributed uncomplainingly throughout their working lives.

Partisan rhetoric aside, it’s a legitimate issue. More than half of Ontarians have no private or company pension plan. They rely on the Canada Pension, which pays a maximum of just over $12,000 a year, plus the means-related old age security and guaranteed income supplement, which can raise the total to a measly $16,000.

Although everyone agrees that is not enough, Wynne and other premiers are frustrated by Flaherty’s refusal to consider enriching the Canada Pension Plan. The federal minister blocked consensus at the finance ministers’ meeting at Meech Lake Dec. 16, and Wynne says Ontario is prepared to go it alone, or with other unhappy provinces.

Flaherty argues that although a return to surpluses is just around the corner in Ottawa, the economy is still too fragile to consider increasing Canada Pension Plan payroll taxes to support more generous benefits.

“Now is the time for fiscal discipline,” he said. Jobs must be created and budgets balanced before the needs of retirees can addressed.

Yes, “fiscal discipline” — just what retirees are longing to hear!

I can see the Liberal and NDP ads now. “Santa” Flaherty handing out “fiscal discipline” vouchers on street corners to pensioners, along with a kindly lecture about how they should have saved more during their working years, and how, now that they are old, they should thank Stephen Harper for the vouchers to take to the food bank to swap for something to eat.

The Harper Conservatives usually manage to make trouble for themselves (to wit, the Senate scandal coverup). This time they are undermining their allies in Ontario, the most important chunk of political real estate in the country. What’s more, they are exposing their base — the 25 or 30 per cent who can be relied on to vote Tory — to assault from their opponents.

The demographics of the Harper nation tend to middle income, grey hair and retirement planning — just the sort of folks who would suffer under Flaherty’s “fiscal discipline” regime. If these people face a polling-booth choice between better pensions and loyalty to the party, the Tories might be not be happy with the result.

The pension issue also serves to reinforce the image of Conservatives, especially the federal variety, as being indifferent to the needs of ordinary Canadian families. It’s an image that was further reinforced recently when Industry Minister James Moore, supposedly a humane Tory, mused aloud, “Is it the government’s job, my job, to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so” — a gaffe (or a lapse into candour) for which he later apologized.

Then there’s Harper’s man at Canada Post, Deepak Chopra, who revealed the secret rationale behind the shift from home delivery to community mailboxes — that is, to give seniors more exercise.

I can see the scene now — hordes of happy seniors chanting the praises of Chairman Harper as they race their walkers and wheelchairs through ice and snow to retrieve their mail. The Conservatives will surely have cameras there to capture the festive scene for next election’s commercials.

Wynne still trying to shake off McGuinty’s legacy

Published Aug. 6, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The jury is still out on Ontario’s Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne. That much, at least, seems clear from last week’s provincial byelections. The Liberals went into the fray with five seats, all held by former cabinet ministers; they came out with just two.

When she became leader and premier early this year, Wynne faced two challenges. The first was to make a clean break from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, with his administration (of which she had been a part) and with the legacy of mismanagement and scandal he left behind. The second was to demonstrate that she and her administration represent a new game in town.

She has done a fair job on the second front, setting a new tone for the government: kinder, gentler, more progressive and more inclusive. This success is reflected in Wynne’s personal popularity in the polls. But the first challenge, breaking with the McGuinty past, is proving more difficult than even she probably anticipated. The trio of McGuinty-era albatrosses — hydro generating plants, Ornge ambulance and the earlier eHealth misspending — still hang around her neck. There is no sign that they are going to go away any time soon.
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The five byelections did not add up to a game-changer, the way last fall’s Kitchener-Waterloo byelection (won by New Democrat Catherine Fife) did; Kitchener and Waterloo denied the McGuinty Liberals a majority government. Last week, the McGuinty record played a part but, as is often the case in byelections, high-profile candidates and strong local campaigns made the difference.

The Liberals knew they were going to lose Windsor-Tecumseh to the NDP’s Percy Hatfield, a popular city councillor and former CBC broadcaster, and they hoped to contain the damage to that one seat. My guess had been that they would lose two — Windsor-Tecumseh and either London West (where the NDP had a powerful candidate in Peggy Sattler) or Etobicoke-Lakeshore (where the Conservatives fielded Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday). As it turned out, they lost all three, retaining only Scarborough-Guildwood (with civic activist Mitzie Hunter) and Dalton McGuinty’s old seat, Ottawa South (where McGuinty’s longtime constituency assistant, John Fraser, parlayed his intimate knowledge of the riding and its voters into a victory for the Liberals).

Two out of five is not good enough for Wynne. Her minority government is more at risk this week than it was last week. The prospect that she might make it through to 2014 before having to call, or be forced into, a provincial election, is fading. An election this fall appears increasingly likely. She won’t be able to win it unless she manages to change the channel — to make voters stop thinking about the problems of the McGuinty past and start thinking about the promise of the Wynne future. It won’t be easy.

On the other side of the Queen’s Park coin, two out of five is spectacular news for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Victory in London and Windsor gives her momentum going into the fall session of the legislature. Her price for continued support of Wynne’s Liberals has suddenly gone up, perhaps dramatically.

But pity poor Tim Hudak. The Progressive Conservative leader performed disappointingly in the 2011 election. It was his to lose, and he lost it. A year ago, the Tories were blown out in the byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo, a supposedly safe Tory seat. With five seats up for grabs last week, Hudak desperately needed to bring home some goodies. The Conservatives talked boldly about London West, Ottawa South and even Scarborough-Guildwood, but all they could bring home was Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

That win did give the provincial Tories their first seat since 1999 in the city of Toronto. But that is scant consolidation. They did not win the seat because of Hudak, but rather because they had the celebrity candidate in Doug Holyday, with campaign assistance from Mayor Rob Ford, the India rubber ball of municipal politics.

Although Hudak’s job is not in immediate jeopardy, the voters did put him on notice last week.

Accepting NDP ideas could create Wynne-win situation

Published May 13, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This is how it is supposed to work in a parliamentary democracy, isn’t it?

Party leaders and their confederates present competing visions (or, more prosaically, platforms) for the electorate to consider. But once the election is over, smart winners don’t simply impose their visions.

They remember that elections are not decided by partisans (Tim Hudak take note). Core supporters are important, but elections are won or lost on the votes of “loose fish” — uncommitted or lightly affiliated voters — who swim around at election time. More important, smart winners understand that they have not been elected solely to cater to their core; they understand that people who did not (and might never) vote for them are entitled to the same consideration from the government as its partisans.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is a smart leader. She understands this. (The same cannot be said of the ideologues in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, or in the Republican party in the United States, but let us not go there today.)
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Because she is a smart leader, Wynne is suppressing the frustration she surely feels as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath keeps coming back for more, ratcheting up the price of her party’s support for the minority Liberal government’s budget. The latest demand: creation of a financial accountability office, patterned after the parliamentary budget office in Ottawa.

Horwath has already snagged some notable concessions, including reduced car insurance rates, more money for home-care and a youth jobs strategy. Now she wants an independent accountability officer, who would report to the speaker of the legislature, not to the government, to provide oversight of government spending.

Although Conservatives (and undoubtedly some Liberals, too) think Horwath has moved beyond poker to a different game — to wit, blackmail — what’s so wrong with that? If there had been a system of independent oversight earlier, some of the more egregious spending scandals of the Dalton McGuinty era might never have happened or been nipped in the bud: eHealth, Ornge ambulance, gas-plant relocations, to mention just three. As long as the government itself oversees government spending, bad stuff tends to slip through. A parliamentary or legislative budget officer is not a panacea, but the position does introduce an element of transparency and, one hopes, caution and restraint.

It’s worth noting that in Ottawa the parliamentary budget office was created in the wake of the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal by the first Harper minority government, then in its pro-accountability days. The Conservatives got much more than they bargained for as the budget officer, Kevin Page, shone a searchlight on government spending — on the war in Afghanistan, prisons and fighter jets, among other things. His term expired in March. He was denied an extension and the office remains vacant while the Tories conduct a leisurely search for a less vigilant watchdog.

At Queen’s Park, Wynne is trying to distance herself from McGuinty’s legacy. Her government still looks and acts too much like his. She needs new faces and new ideas. The spending watchdog is one idea whose time has come. Its projected cost, $2.5 million a year, is almost nothing next to the hundreds of millions wasted in the gas-plant fiasco alone.

So why does Wynne hesitate? Why doesn’t she thank Horwath effusively and grab this shiny new idea? For one thing, she knows that watchdogs have a habit of biting the hand that appoints them. For another, she knows that the more ideas she accepts from the NDP the more she enhances the credibility of a party that is fishing in the same pool of progressive voters.

But to flip that coin over, the risk is just as real for Horwath. The more ideas she insists the Liberals steal, the greater the attraction Wynne’s Liberals will have for her own NDP voters. Why stay true to Andrea Howarth when New Democrats can enjoy the same policies, and have a government to boot, by voting for Kathleen Wynne?

Such is democracy at work.

Geoffrey Stevens on CTV’s Province Wide

Broadcasted May 5, 2013, on CTV Province Wide

Geoffrey Stevens talks about what the future holds for Premier Kathleen Wynne and an Ontario election. Stevens believes that Wynne will be in good shape through the summer but notes that it will be interesting to see what happens in the Fall. There is a 50/50 chance that we will have an election in the Fall and a 100 percent chance that we will have an election at this time, next year.

You can watch the video by clicking here.

Dr. Barry Kay Appears on 570 News

Broadcasted Apr. 30, 2013, in 570 News

Dr. Barry Kay appears on The Gary Doyle Show to discuss our most recent Ontario seat projection. At this moment, Dr. Kay sees a minority government in the future as no party has a significant lead.

You can hear what Dr. Kay had to say by listening here

Is a June election on Ontario’s horizon?

Published Apr. 29, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record 

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s retreaded Liberal government will bring down its budget on Thursday – her first since taking over at Queen’s Park in February – and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. We may not know until Wednesday or even Thursday. As of today, there’s probably a 35-40 per cent chance that Wynne’s negotiations with NDP leader Andrea Horwath will fail. If they do, the minority Liberal government will fall within days, and Ontarians will be sent to the polls in June.

Only one thing seems certain: having been painted into a corner by their leader, the Progressive Conservatives will oppose the budget, regardless of its contents. That leaves Horwath as Wynne’s only dance partner.

Tory leader Tim Hudak is a product of the John Diefenbaker school of political arts. Dief was resolute in his conviction that the role of the Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is to oppose. Period. As Dief saw it, it is not the responsibility of the opposition to help a minority government to serve the citizenry. The opposition’s job is to throw the scoundrels out, come hell or high water.

Having made his intention clear at the outset, Hudak lost any opportunity to nudge Wynne and her finance minister Charles Sousa a bit to right. Hudak’s stance may play well with Tory hard-liners, but it does not help his standing among the public at large; he trails the other two leaders in popularity.
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Each of the three leaders has a problem. Wynne’s is that while Ontarians like her, they don’t like her government or her party. The stench of the Dalton McGuinty era spending scandals (hydro plants, Ornge ambulance, eHealth) still lingers. An Ipsos Reid poll last week reported that 66 per cent of Ontario voters believe it is time for another political party to take over. “Time for a change,” is a deadly warning for any government.

Horwath’s problem is the longer she props up the Liberals – she has been at it since the October 2011 election – the less she is able to present the NDP as an alternative to the government. If voters like the Liberal/NDP brand of policies, why not vote for the real thing, Wynne’s Liberals? But if Horwath turns her back on Wynne this week (as many New Democrats are urging), she will bear the blame for an election most Ontarians don’t want.

Tim Hudak’s problem is he knows he cannot trust the polls. They may show the Conservatives six to eight points ahead of the Liberals (and a couple more points ahead of the third-place New Democrats). But Hudak has been there before. He went into the 2011 election with a large lead, but he let it dribble away during the campaign. It seems the more voters see and hear of Hudak the less they like him. Perhaps the Tories should send their leader on a round-the-world cruise until the election is over.

The polls point to another minority government. A seat projection prepared by my colleague, Professor Barry Kay, for the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP), points to a fragile minority Conservative government with 45 seats, to 38 seats for the Liberals and 24 for the NDP. The Tories would fail to breach the Liberals’ Fortress Toronto. Kay projects no Conservative seats at all in Toronto itself and only four in the rest of the GTA.

But the Tories would tighten their hold on southwest Ontario, winning 18 of the 24 seats in the region. On the basis of the projection, the Liberals would be left with just two seats in southwest Ontario – one in Guelph and one in London. John Milloy, the government house leader, would lose the Kitchener Centre seat he narrowly retained in the 2011 election. The Kitchener-Waterloo seat, won by New Democrat Catherine Fife in a by-election upset last September, appears to be a toss-up.

A June election? There’s not much for any leader or party cheer about.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne: class, conviction and courage

Published Jan. 28, 2013, The Waterloo Region Record

There’s an old saying in politics that new leaders are never stronger than on the day they take over. If they are going to make changes, they should make them quickly, while the goodwill lasts and before their opponents get dug in.

Kathleen Wynne understands. Fresh from her victory at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention, she announced she will recall the Legislature, prorogued since last fall, on Feb. 19. Between now and then, she will appoint a cabinet, prepare a throne speech and meet with the opposition party leaders in the hope of winning their cooperation to avoid an election this spring.

That done, she will have to tackle some of the detritus left behind by Dalton McGuinty – the Ornge Ambulance and hydro-plant spending scandals; a provincial deficit now estimated at $12 billion this year; and a poisoned relationship between the provincial government and organized labour, especially the teachers and the other public sector unions. She has to do all this with a minority in the Legislature where at least some of her opponents hunger for an early opportunity to bring her down.

The next six weeks should give Ontarians a reasonably clear picture of what to expect from the Wynne government. They should also reveal where on the political spectrum she intends to position her party.
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Ever since Mike Harris moved the Progressive Conservatives to the Reform right, the Liberals have straddled the middle. McGuinty was particularly adept at moving the Liberals to the right to pick off Red Tory voters when the Conservatives threatened, or to the left to recapture soft Liberals when the threat came from the other direction. The Liberals knew they could win elections so long as they held the NDP below 20 per cent of the popular vote.

Wynne’s dilemma can be seen in a poll published on the eve of the convention. It put the Liberals in third place, about eight percentage points behind the first-place New Democrats and five points behind the Tories.

She knows three things. First, election-weary Ontario voters do not want another trip to the polls. Second, they want politicians to tone down the rhetoric and get back to work. Third, the route to avoid an election and to get the Legislature back to work goes through the NDP.

Conservative leader Tim Hudak, it is assumed, would trade his grandmother for a ticket to the polls; he knows the next election may be his last chance at the brass ring. NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Wynne come from a similar direction. Neither, for her own reasons, wants an election any time soon. As long as she can extract enough goodies at strategic intervals, Horwath will prop up the Liberals, perhaps through the end of this year, if not longer. For her part, Wynne made it clear in her speeches at the convention and in her press conference afterward that she is prepared to deal.

To my mind, the speeches made by Wynne and her principal rival, Sandra Pupatello, before the voting on Saturday were most interesting parts of the convention. Pupatello, the perceived front-runner, made a fine, but traditional, political speech, impassioned and partisan; no one doubted that she meant it when she said she would bring the opposition parties to their knees.

Wynne seemed more conciliatory, more disposed than Pupatello to work with the opposition. Wynne’s was one of the best convention speeches I have heard in years. It had class, conviction and courage, especially when she took on the “elephant in the room” – the issue of her lesbianism. She was absolutely convincing. Her words may have alienated some skittish delegates, but I think her powerful candor made it virtually impossible for moderate delegates who had been supporting Charles Sousa and Gerard Kennedy not to move to Wynne on the final ballot.

Now, Wynne has a chance to turn her Liberals into a progressive presence on the provincial scene. If she succeeds, the NDP will be the loser.