By Geoffrey Stevens
There are nasty overtones in this Ontario election and some of them surfaced in at an all-candidates meeting in St. Agatha in Kitchener-Conestoga riding on Tuesday night.
Perhaps that was inevitable. Kitchener-Conestoga, a sprawling urban-rural seat, is a crucial battleground. Although solidly Conservative in federal elections, it has been desperately close in recent provincial elections. In 2007, a new Liberal candidate, Leeanna Pendergast held the riding by just 1,870 votes out of 39,007 cast. That 4.8 per cent margin was the third closest loss registered by the Progressive Conservatives in all of Ontario – after Nipissing (at 1.1 per cent) and Barrie (2.9 per cent).
Both parties need Kitchener-Conestoga, and I think it is fair to say that if the Conservatives can’t win the seat, they won’t be able to win Ontario – and, if the Liberals can’t hold the seat, they can say goodbye to a majority government (or worse).
In the summer, when polls put the Tories comfortably ahead, seat projections – including the one at LISPOP (Laurier Institute for Studies in Public Opinion and Research) – were showing Kitchener-Conestoga as deep blue (probable Conservative). But now, with support shifting, the riding is coloured pale blue (leaning Conservative).
Given the trend, chances are the riding will be rated too close to call after the next round of polls.
The closeness of the contest undoubtedly contributed to the tension at the all-candidates meeting, which was sponsored by The Record. So, I think, did the fact that the three principal candidates are old foes – Conservative Michael Harris (no relation to that other Harris) battled Liberal Pendergast in 2007, as did New Democrat Mark Cairns – and they don’t like one another very much.
Harris packed the meeting partisans who loudly harassed Pendergast about her alleged failure to answer constituents’ phone calls.
Pendergast, a former school vice-principal with a schoolmarmish tendency to talk down to listeners, snapped at one point that she was glad to finally get a question from a “real” person – meaning a non-Conservative. Cairns, the New Democrat, who was largely ignored by the other two, declared he was not going to engage in personal attacks, then did a bit of it himself.
The first question from the floor, from a Harris supporter, was: “What are you going to do to end the gravy train for Liberal hacks?” It was mostly downhill from there. Harris attacked Premier Dalton McGuinty for breaking promises and raising taxes, while Pendergast defended McGuinty and attacked Conservative leader Tim Hudak for blindly opposing worthwhile measures to address the needs of the province.
None of the candidates offered any original thoughts about economic growth, job creation, provincial debt or gasoline prices (an issue everywhere, it seems). On a scale of one to five, I’d give the St. Agatha meeting a three for partisan bitchiness, a one for public enlightenment and a zero (to heck with the scale) for political goodwill and humour.
One thing that surprised me was the way the Liberals – who are, after all, the incumbents – allowed themselves to be out-hustled by the Conservatives. Outside, Harris signs lined the drive to the St. Agatha Community Centre. Inside, Conservatives out-numbered the Liberals by two to one. They dominated the question period.
It reminded me of the 2008 federal election when Stéphane Dion was Liberal leader. Liberals everywhere sat on their hands, then stayed at home. It was not a happy election for Liberals.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
(published Sept 15, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)