The elections earlier this year in Quebec and Ontario can each be encapsulated in a single moment. On Sunday, March 9, Parti Quebecois Premier Pauline Marois introduced her star candidate, business executive Pierre Karl Peladeau (aka PKP). His fist pump and declaration that he wanted to make Quebec a country triggered fears that a reelected PQ would hold a new sovereignty referendum. Exactly two months later, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak announced that in order to balance the books he "would reduce the size of the bureaucracy by 100,000 positions." That statement, delivered in a blue suit and sombre tone, would doom his campaign.
In Quebec, the Liberals, led by Philippe Couillard, were already climbing in the polls when PKP entered the scene, but that moment would seal the fate of the PQ, which went on to defeat in the April election. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne won a surprising majority for her Ontario Liberals in June, surprising because at the outset many observers were convinced that scandals, an abiding budget deficit and sluggish economic growth could mean an end to ten and a half years of Liberal rule in Ontario. Thus, Canada's two largest provinces, which entered 2014 governed by minority legislatures, both have Liberal majority governments as the year comes to a close.
These two provinces, home to nearly 62 per cent of Canada's population, will elect about 59 per cent of the House of Commons in 2015. Their sheer size and influence on 2015's electoral outcome means that the two provincial elections will be scrutinized closely by the federal parties. One clear lesson is that the Liberal brand is not dead: it can win provincial elections. The federal Liberals have led the polls in both provinces this year, support that partly reflects the continued strength of the Liberal trademark, not just the popularity of Justin Trudeau.
For Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives, the provincial campaigns featured developments that offer grounds for both hope and gloom. Ontario matters most for the Conservatives. They gained 22 constituencies there in 2011, while losing five ridings in Quebec. It was Ontario that delivered the Conservatives their majority. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's aspirations for his party currently appear checkmated by Trudeau and the renewed Liberal strength in central Canada, but there are mixed messages from the provincial elections for his party as well.
Ontario: The perils of less government and lower taxes
In the Ontario election, the outcome was determined early. Tim Hudak's out-of-the-gate promise to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs was a strategic miscalculation. The magnitude of the error was confirmed by Conservative MPPs when they caucused shortly after the election. According to the Globe and Mail, the pledge came as "a complete surprise" to Conservative candidates, who confirmed that "the public-sector job cuts came up repeatedly on voters' doorsteps." One MPP declared that it was "an anti-Tim Hudak election."
As well, one cannot underestimate the talent and effectiveness of Premier Kathleen Wynne in changing the direction of the Ontario Liberals. They were a particularly blue Grit party under her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, but she put a truly fresh and progressive face on the Liberal brand, a transformation that was a key to Liberal success. In particular, she made Liberal opposition to Hudak austerity believable.
One obvious lesson here is that voters don't want to hear an explicit message of austerity with its implications all clearly delineated. It is a lesson Stephen Harper appears to have learned already: much better to obfuscate on the meaning of cuts. Maclean's political editor Paul Wells offered this contrast between Hudak's approach and how Stephen Harper dealt with the prospect of federal layoffs likely to come from his spending cuts:
Hudak ... decided his target audience was people who think eliminating public sector jobs is always excellent. Compare and contrast: During the 2011 federal election, I worked hard to get a succession of federal Conservatives--Jim Flaherty, John Baird--to give me any indication of the scale of public sector job cuts the Harper government had in mind. Baird pledged, with a straight face, to protect the National Capital Region's bureaucrats from the kind of ravages the Chretien-Martin Liberals had inflicted in the 1990s. The Baird comment seems like satire, but it deflected the point of the inquiry. The outcome of the ideologically polarized Ontario election will no doubt reinforce the federal Conservatives' penchant for circumspection if not outright secrecy. But they are likely feeling chills down their spine. The Harper parallel to the Hudak PC program is unmistakable. In the middle of the Ontario campaign economist Paul Boothe, a former senior federal finance official, commented on the three parties' fiscal platforms:
The Liberals and NDP propose to maintain Ontario's already relatively low program spending at approximately the current level. In contrast, the Conservatives propose to lower program spending substantially to finance a large corporate tax cut now and lower personal taxes once the budget is balanced. The...