BY GOSH – As campaigns go, the recently-completed Sault Ste. Marie by-election didn’t generate much interest beyond the locals. But the surprising result – convincing PC win, disappointing second place for the NDP, Liberals a distant third – is creating waves of intrigue across Ontario, with many political observers re-thinking assumptions they had about the provincial landscape. Consider:
Those unconvinced of PC Leader Patrick Brown’s legitimacy will surely be taking him more seriously now. Winning a seat in Northern Ontario – one the Tories hadn’t held in more than 30 years – to go with the riding they picked up in Toronto (also a PC wasteland for decades) last fall, removes any doubt about Brown’s campaigning prowess. He has emphatically shown his mastery of the ‘ground war’ – he personally made more than 30 trips to the North since becoming party leader, at least 10 to Sault Ste. Marie alone, which obviously paid off – and has a reputation as a dynamo, building support through an endless string of small meetings. The one remaining question is how he will fare in the ‘air war’ of province-wide messaging central to a general election – or whether that will even matter as he continues his grassroots, one-voter-at-a-time approach.
On the downside for Brown, this by-election momentum – reinforcing a narrative that he’s on an unstoppable march to the Premier’s Office – can be expected to trigger some intensification of the scrutiny around him. Already the commentariat is amping up the psychoanalysis. This includes the likes of former PC MPP Peter Shurman, who suggested that even within the party Brown is rather enigmatic – having been a SoCon darling while serving as an MP in Ottawa and now embracing leftish positions like a carbon tax. “I think that he is legitimately a Conservative thinker, but I think that he has had problems defining what that means on a provincial level,” Shurman told Postmedia. “You’ve got people saying, ‘I’m a social conservative and I don’t see one in him’ and you’ve got people who are more moderate saying, ‘He supports a carbon what?’ ”
The magnitude of the drubbing the Liberals took in the by-election has even their staunchest supporters feeling uneasy. Many are wondering if the LIBs have reached the same point of no return that befell Bob Rae’s NDP government in the mid-1990s, when it was a foregone conclusion they were going to be ousted in the next election. (Queen’s Parkers of a certain vintage well remember the legendary Toronto Life magazine cover featuring an extreme close-up of Rae’s face, with a one-word headline: “Toast.”) Most Liberals are still clinging to the hope that Premier Kathleen Wynne– known as a formidable campaigner herself – can get her mojo back, and it’s a timeworn sports axiom to never bet against the reigning champ. But if a sense of despair takes root, it will exacerbate troubles the Liberals are already having recruiting candidates, volunteers and donors.
Even as the Liberals are reeling, the by-election outcome was perhaps a bigger blow to the New Democrats – who held Sault Ste. Marie for 18 years before the Liberals and were confident they’d take it back. As a local analyst, Trevor Tchir, assistant professor of political science at Algoma University in Sault Ste Marie, put it, “If this was a litmus test for the general election, the NDP has to be concerned.” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath put up a brave face, offering, “The much bigger fight lies ahead.”
If you’re scoring at home, there have now been seven by-elections since the last general election in 2014. The PCs have won five – including the by-election that gave Brown a provincial seat in Simcoe North, as well as Whitby-Oshawa, Scarborough-Rouge River, Niagara West-Glanbrook and now Sault Ste. Marie – while the Liberals have taken the other two, in Sudbury and Ottawa-Vanier. The last by-election won by the NDP was Wayne Gates in Niagara Falls four months prior to the 2014 provincial election. Results since then have been a troubling trend for the NDP, who traditionally did well in by-elections, where they could marshal their limited resources in one place. In fact, nearly a third of the current NDP caucus was first elected in by-elections, including Horwath.
ROMANO HOLIDAY – Ontario’s newest MPP, Ross Romano, will have to wait until September to be formally escorted to his seat in the Legislature, but in the meantime he will be sworn in and take his place at PC caucus meetings. Brown, in a conference call with Northern Ontario media following Romano’s by-election win, welcomed his long-time pal – they went to law school together at the University of Windsor – as bringing “a lot of depth and a work effort that is contagious” to the table. Romano’s election will likely necessitate a shuffle of PC critic duties, with Brown confirming, “I will have an assignment for Ross and I’m sure we will sit down shortly and discuss that.” Northern Development might seem to be an obvious place for Romano. Norm Miller current holds that critic portfolio for the PCs. While Miller’s Parry Sound-Muskoka riding is the northernmost in the caucus, most Northerners consider it to be Central Ontario, at best.
SOMETHING TO APPROVE – Cruising along as he is, Brown has served notice he doesn’t want to be sidetracked by nomination disputes, at least three of which were causing significant strife. The PC Leader is exercising his prerogative to name candidates by summarily approving the 64 nominated so far. This in effect quashes any appeals, carving the names into the ballot and leaving no further avenue for those feeling they were cheated by alleged ballot stuffing and other questionable practices. This move may kill the appeals, but it hasn’t quelled the anger. Jeremy Roberts, who narrowly lost to Karma Macgregor in Ottawa West-Nepean, posted on his website, “If a party appears willing to undermine a democratic process to get the result it wants, and will not reverse that decision in the face of overwhelming evidence that the process was wrong and did not represent the will of the people in that riding, it raises legitimate questions about its worthiness to form government and the actions it will take once it does.” Brown is evidently betting that such fury will be short-lived and is a better option than the drawn-out embarrassment of challenges and re-votes. Notably, Roberts also posted that, despite his situation, his supporters should vote for Brown anyway.
RUMOURS & RUMBLINGS
SWEET ON CAROLINE
Brown’s ongoing success, both in by-elections and in public opinion polls, is fuelling plenty of speculation about ‘star’ candidates wanting to jump on the PC bandwagon. Among those being rumoured is Caroline Mulroney Lapham, daughter of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and a successful lawyer and businesswoman. Brown is reportedly quite close to the Mulroney family, and Caroline would certainly provide a boost as the Tories look to break through the 416 Liberal fortress in Toronto. But some insiders say the talk – which has gone beyond gossip to being broadcast by the CBC and other mainstream media – is little more than that. Word is she is not really in the running, but Brown’s team is in no hurry to quell such positive speculation, especially as a useful distraction while they work through the nomination mess.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Speaking of rumours being treated as legitimate news, former Ombudsman André Marin wrote in his Postmedia column that “there’s much speculation in the air that Wynne will call a snap election this summer or fall and not wait until June 2018.” Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda, also gave the snap election gossip credence, writing in an online column, “Strategically, there are some awfully good reasons for the Liberals to jump the gun and go now, rather than wait for next June,” pointing to the Tories’ lack of substantive policy and a slight rebound in Liberal polling fortunes. However, this idea — that Wynne would forgo the fixed election date and suddenly dissolve the government — seems highly unlikely. For starters, parties languishing in the polls generally don’t relish facing voters if they don’t have to. Also, the Liberal history of early election calls still haunts some old-timers, who can’t forget the 1990 debacle when then-Premier David Peterson triggered a snap election barely three years into his mandate and promptly lost government. As it is, the fall election rumours seem to be coming primarily from Tories – Marin was a by-election candidate for the PCs last year and makes no secret of his hate-on for the Liberals – putting it in the mischief category. For her part, Wynne has categorically stated that the next provincial election will take place as scheduled on June 7, 2018, the one-year countdown having started this week.
FOR THE RECORD
“It’s really appalling to me the President of the United States would abdicate his responsibility in the face of the greatest threat confronting humanity.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne, one of many government leaders slamming U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate-change accord. Wynne was in Washington this week, along with other Canadian Premiers, primarily to talk about NAFTA – another Trump-generated issue of concern, as he has vowed to scuttle the free trade agreement.
“He thinks he can walk in and do this kind of stuff. You can’t go after Jean Chrétien, you can’t do stuff like negative billing – a lot of seniors were getting channels that they didn’t want to get – then take the higher ground and … point the finger and say you guys aren’t doing anything, aren’t doing enough. His approach is disappointing and juvenile.”
Liberal MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti (Scarborough Southwest), slamming Toronto Mayor John Tory’s letter-writing campaign to pressure MPPs on more provincial funding for public housing. In the interview with Metroland Media, Berardinetti went for the jugular, rehashing long-ago Tory blunders like attack ads when he was running the federal Conservative campaign in 1993 and negative option billing when he was head of Rogers.
“The night I was on The Agenda the prospects looked very dim indeed. I think there’s more light at the end of the tunnel … There’s a sense that the Premier herself and the government is really getting its act together and that bodes well in the last year of a mandate … Is she occupying all of the space of Andrea Horwath‘s [NDP] party? I think she’s occupying a lot of it and I’m not sure that’s a bad political strategy.”
Former Liberal cabinet minister and party powerhouse Greg Sorbara, who infamously said in a TVO interview that Premier Wynne should step down, now much more bullish on her re-election chances – approving of the Liberal focus on social issues traditionally seen as NDP territory.
“The Green party is more on the map because of what happened in B.C. What B.C. has shown us is that you can vote for what you want.”
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, optimistic that Green success in British Columbia – winning three seats and signing an agreement with the NDP to form a minority government – will translate to Ontario because the party won’t be seen “as alien a force.”
“As you know, my nomination has become the object of controversy, which I regret very much. I have concluded that my ability to fulfil these duties for all Canadians would have been greatly compromised.”
Former Ontario cabinet minister Madeleine Meilleur, in a letter to federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, declining the post of Commissioner of Official Languages amid a storm of controversy that the non-partisan appointment was made on partisan grounds.
Enterprise is a leading Canadian public affairs firm with expertise in government relations, digital and public relations. Our public affairs agency has offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara and Six Nations.