Could the Liberals have Won Bigger?

The October 6 election gave the Liberals a surprising near-minority. We can find lots of reasons for it. First, Premier McGuinty projects himself as an experienced hand in troubled economic times. In addition, after eight years of governing, he still appears fresh and enthusiastic. That’s no small feat; long-time incumbent governments often defeat themselves because they and their leader appear worn-out and cynical: I certainly remember that Premier Ernie Eves projected fatigue in the 2003 campaign and especially the debate.

Conservative Tim Hudak’s message was critical, as it should have been. But the simplistic message — “Hudak lower taxes, more jobs/McGuinty higher taxes, fewer jobs” – was repeated to the point of overkill. Mike Harris, the last Ontario Conservative to defeat an incumbent, had a much more comprehensive platform in his “common sense revolution,” and more gravitas than Hudak. And watching Rob Ford’s conservatism-in-action in Toronto and hearing Stephen Harper’s wish for a “hat trick” didn’t help.

Andrea Horwath’s enthusiasm was undercut by the unreality of some of her promises – cut emergency waiting times in half, freeze gasoline prices – and her lack of priorities, as reflected in the number of different groups she was willing to “put first.”

For me, the campaign in microcosm was a candidate’s debate in my constituency of Don Valley West, between two heavyweights, former Education and current Transport Minister Kathleen Wynne and Conservative Andrea Mandel-Campbell, a high-profile business journalists. (The NDP and Green candidates, while well-meaning, and far less experienced and articulate).

In the debate, Mandel-Campbell was able to seize the issue of public debt and taxes, claiming that the Liberals had enormously expanded public debt and raised taxes during McGuinty’s eight years in office. She added, as an aside, that Ontarians have a higher per-capita public debt than Californian’s.

Wynne was never able to adequately respond to Mandel-Campbell’s position. While she made the point that Tim Hudak would not repudiate any of the decisions made by the Harris Government – in which he was a minister – she never explored the implications. She could have reminded the voters that when the Liberals came to office, they were hit with an unexpected $5 billion deficit the Conservatives had left. She could also have reminded the voters that the Liberals eliminated the Conservative deficit and essentially balanced the books for the remainder of their first term.

Turning to the second term, she could have reminded the audience that the deficit increased, not because the Liberals were willfully wasting public resources, but because they were responding to the global recession, and it meant major expenditures on keeping the auto industry functioning and participating in the Economic Action Plan. So Ontario was running a large deficit, just as the federal Conservatives were. She could have asked Mandel-Campbell whether she wouldn’t have bailed out GM or whether she wouldn’t have participated in the Economic Action Plan.

Wynne could have also mentioned that the California comparison was completely irrelevant because the State of California plays a much small role than the province of Ontario, so it isn’t a surprise that we have more per capita provincial public debt.

Looking to the next four years, Wynne could have made the case that if the Conservatives were so intent on making deficit and debt reduction as their number one policy priority, they would likely be making very drastic cuts in public spending that could well drive the economy into another recession. She could have compared their fiscal plan to that of the Tea Party in the US, or the one that external agencies are imposing on Greece, which she might have called “Hudak’s Grecian Formula.” She could have argued that we aren’t Greece and the McGuinty Government hasn’t governed as though we were. More broadly, she could have made the point that, while it’s important to eliminate deficits and pay down debt, it shouldn’t be done so quickly that it can push the economy into another recession and drastically drive up unemployment.

I came away from the debate thinking that Ms. Mandel-Campbell was promulgating Tea Party economics and Ms. Wynne didn’t call her on it. The Liberals shouldn’t let a Canadianized version of the Tea Party’s story prevail in the campaign. Perhaps if they had responded more aggressively, they would have won their majority. But looking to the new term that starts today, they must begin to tell their own story, one that balances a concern for the economy today with a concern for the fiscal balance sheet in the distant future.

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