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Leaders fail to spark voter enthusiasm

September 20th, 2011 ·

By Geoffrey Stevens

The 2007 Ontario election, the one that returned Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals for a second term, set a record – albeit a dubious record.

Only 52.6 per cent of the province’s 8.4 million eligible voters turned out to the polls. That broke the old provincial record of 54.7 per cent set away back in 1923. It was also more than eight percentage points lower than the (dismal) turnout for the federal election in May this year.

I wish I could report that it will be different next month – that the electorate is energized, that issues affecting all Ontarians are being debated vigorously, that Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath (or even one of those three leaders) have captured the public’s imagination. I wish I could report it, but I’m afraid it ain’t so.

As the campaign approaches its midpoint this week, the level of public engagement is extremely low, lower than I have seen in previous elections, federal or provincial. All-candidate meetings seem to attract more partisans bent on slagging their opponents than ordinary voters in search of information. There is precious little buzz in the workplace, newsrooms, coffee shops or bars. Most people seem only dimly aware that there is an election and many have no idea when it’s happening (Thursday, Oct. 6).

You might think it would be different in the so-called “technology triangle” (Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, which I will arbitrarily expand to include Guelph), but it isn’t. The region has witnessed the same death of industries and loss of good manufacturing jobs as the rest of southern Ontario. Yet we are blessed with three excellent universities, a top-ranked community college, significant public investment by senior governments, and a high-tech sector that, notwithstanding the current problems at Research In Motion, is the envy of all Canada.

Although you might think all these smart, educated, well-compensated citizens would be thoroughly engaged in the election, we seem to be as remote from it as other Ontarians.

There are a couple of reasons, I think. One could be called “political fatigue.” There were municipal elections across the province less than a year ago, followed by a federal election in the spring, then the whole drama and trauma of Jack Layton, his astonishing success, his untimely death and his state funeral that consumed the public’s attention. Now, facing another trip to the polls, Ontario voters, who tend to pay more attention to federal and municipal politics than to the provincial variety, are asking: “Another election? What is it?”

That’s part of the disconnect. Another part comes from the campaigns of the three principal parties. Let’s not call them boring. Let’s just say that none of the three leaders has succeeded in setting the woods on fire. None has even a scintilla of charisma.

McGuinty, the Liberal leader, has been around a long time. After eight years in office, his government is tired and depleted of some of its better talent.

Hudak, the Conservative, comes across as something of a synthetic figure, more adept at shooting himself in the foot (the “foreign workers” controversy) than at selling his program. We know what he is against – including, for some reason, allowing Samsung, a Korean company, to invest $7 billion in Ontario to create green energy jobs – but it is hard to get a handle on what he is in favour of (aside from tax cuts).

Horwath and her New Democrats are waiting for an “orange surge” or “Layton halo effect” to propel them into second place. They may be waiting a long time.

In the “technology triangle,” plus Guelph, we are looking at some tight races and low turnouts, I fear. We may have a better sense after the next round of all-candidate meetings sponsored by The Record and its sister paper, the Guelph Mercury. Those are in Kitchener-Waterloo Monday night; Cambridge Tuesday, Kitchener-Centre on Wednesday and Guelph on Thursday.

Time is running out. Would someone kindly set the woods on fire? Politically speaking.

Previously published in the Waterloo Region Record, Sept. 19, 2011.

(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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