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The battle for a crucial patch of Ontario

April 24th, 2011 · andrea

By Geoffrey Stevens

Not long ago, the federal Liberals “owned” this patch of Ontario. They held all five seats in Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, rolling up huge pluralities in election after election. The Liberals didn’t simply win – they dominated.

The crucial question for May 2 is whether the Liberals can reclaim their former ownership, or a healthy slice of it.

The five ridings I am watching are Kitchener Centre, Kitchener-Waterloo, Kitchener-Conestoga, Cambridge and Guelph (Guelph being the only one of the five still in Liberal hands, albeit barely). All five feature two-way, Conservative-Liberal fights.

Some of the numbers are quite striking. The Liberals held all five ridings throughout the Chrétien years. In 2000, the Jean Chrétien’s final election, the Grits took Guelph by a staggering margin of 15,403 votes, Kitchener-Waterloo by 14,730, Kitchener Centre by 11,908, Cambridge by 7,233, and Kitchener-Conestoga (then known as Waterloo-Wellington) by 4,822.

Their total plurality in the five races in 2000 was 54,096. The fortress began to crack in the next election, in 2004, as the Liberals, then led by Paul Martin, slipped to a minority government. One of the five seats, Cambridge, fell to the Conservatives, by 224 votes. The other four stayed Liberal, though with reduced pluralities.

The 2006 election, the one that made Stephen Harper prime minister, saw a second defection as Kitchener-Conestoga went to the Tories. Then, in 2008, Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener Centre went Conservative (by 17 and 339 votes, respectively), leaving only Guelph in the Liberal fold (by a shrunken 1,788 votes).

Including Guelph, the Conservatives’ net plurality in the five ridings in 2008 was 23,135 votes. In other words, a 54,000-vote Liberal plurality in 2000 had turned into a 23,000-vote Conservative plurality eight years later – a massive shift of just over 77,000 votes across five mid-sized ridings.

So do the Conservative “own” this patch now? Or are they just borrowing it?

From what I’ve seen and heard on the campaign trail, the Conservatives are struggling. Three things have changed since 2008. First, voter interest, as reflected in the turnout at all-candidate meetings, has increased appreciably; halls that were one-third empty three years ago are standing room only now.

Second, Liberals, many of whom stayed home three years ago, are packing meetings this time around. Part of that is improved organization, but part is a determination to prevent a Conservative majority. Harper may or may not have rallied his own supporters with his pitch for a majority, but he has clearly energized his opponents.

Third, there is an animus toward Harper and the Harper government today that was not nearly so obvious in the 2008 campaign.

This antipathy was on display at an all-candidate meeting in Kitchener-Waterloo on Tuesday night. Peter Braid, the Conservative who defeated former Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi by 17 votes in 2008, was booed repeatedly. So was every mention of his leader. Sounding like a wind-up toy sent forth to recite the Harper message, Braid won no converts with his comments on such issues as contempt of Parliament – an issue manufactured by an opposition coalition desperate to force an election – or the multi-billion-dollar purchase of F-35 fighter aircraft – a great deal for Canada.

Unless I’m mistaken (which is entirely possible) the Conservatives will be hard-pressed to hold Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener Centre. They shot themselves in the foot in Guelph where they nominated a novice, Marty Burke, an airline pilot. Having been accused by his opponents of racism (over foolish comments about former Governor General Michaëlle Jean), Burke has become virtually invisible. The word in Guelph is that he is under orders from on high to avoid the media and steer clear of public meetings.

The other two ridings seem destined to remain blue: Cambridge where Science Minister (and regional patronage boss) Gary Goodyear is seeking re-election; and Kitchener-Conestoga where Harold Albrecht, an entrenched, right-wing Conservative backbencher, is being challenged by  a high-profile, moderate Liberal, Bob Rosehart, former president of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Stayed tuned!

(Published April 23, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

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

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