Why Ernie lost

It wasn’t because of his election screw-ups

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The realities of governing ontario have left the Tories banished to the base they came from – flotsam and jetsam business hustlers who have problems with anger management, nowheresville cranks and grumblers.

But in the jubilation, it’s possible to miss some dangerous omens. One has to do with the NDP and why it faces the deepest crisis of its history. The other relates to the victorious Liberals and why we should expect a much more housekeeping regime than the dynamic and progressive government they formed during the 1980s.

The Tory loss last week came, many assume, because voters didn’t take to their negative and divisive style of governing and electioneering. But there are structural reasons why this was pretty well all that Ernie Eves had to offer.

Provinces deal with meat-and-potatoes issues such as education, health, energy, highways and resources. These are all costly items that require intensive management day in and day out or else things fall apart. There’s not much room for heroics or grandstanding, for privatization or deregulation, nobody much to pick fights with other than the poor and the unions. It’s this lack of new possibilities that led former premier Mike Harris to tire of the scene and retire early, and that left his successor, Ernie Eves, looking unsure about where to take neo-conservative politics.

This constitutional reality of provincial politics explains the paltry accomplishments of the Harris and Eves Tories – if you overlook the cuts to the social safety net for a moment – despite the fact that they were the most interventionist, meddling, in-your-face government Ontario’s ever had. Nor did they have much to offer their own kith and kin. The Tories couldn’t even privatize the Liquor Board, let alone Ontario Hydro or any highway that the NDP hadn’t already privatized first.

Aside from the constitutional obligations that discipline any provincial government, the Ontario economy is not well-suited to government bashers. The province has a sophisticated industrial base that tolerates decent wages and high rates of diversity and creativity. Ontarians look to government to provide social and political stability, something the Tories could never do. There are no coal mines demanding that environmental laws be overturned, no textile mills demanding that social legislation be overturned and not enough hunting lodges to keep the bear hunt a government priority.

The Tory record for bringing in new industries to jurisdictions bashing unions and the environment was zip. It’s not the Tory defeat in 2003 that needs explaining. It’s their victories in 1995 and 1999, despite massive Liberal leads in public opinion polls right up to election period. As soon as the Liberals stopped being inept, they won. The two Tory terms in office did not reveal any major shift in Ontario society, despite all the hand-wringing about 905, which voted NDP in 1990 and Liberal in 2003.

Despite their failure at government, the Harrisites have left an ugly scrape across the political culture. The tradition whereby political parties proclaim their commitment to the public good has been weakened. The deepening Tory-created poverty has hurt the poor most but affected the quality of life of all people, especially in cities.

Yet no party spoke up for Ontario’s poor, despite the substantial increase in people living below the poverty line. The NDP’s Howard Hampton emphasized raising the minimum wage, which has remained the same since 1995. This campaign pitch only highlighted his silence on social assistance rates, which were cut 20 per cent in 1995. The NDP’s commitment to pocketbook economics at the expense of the big picture was most obvious in its campaign for government auto insurance, as if a polluted world needs cheaper driving and public transit is not the transportation issue that merits attention and support.

Then there’s the decline of blue-collar workers’ voter support for the left, a worrisome indicator of social disintegration that affects the entire political spectrum and creates a crisis for the NDP. The fact is that the NDP was shut out of its former solid base in industrial cities like Hamilton, Oshawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor, and lost its domincance in Sudbury, which used to have more than one NDP rep.

In cities like Toronto, it did better with yuppies and Mummies (middleaged upwardly mobile Marxists) than in traditional working class ridings where it used to have a base. The decline of progressive politics among industrial workers and the fastest-growing class in the population, low-waged workers in deadend jobs, spells trouble for the NDP and for the Canadian political tradition in general. The U.S. experience with the sought-after demographic of “NASCAR dads” (white-trash car race fans usually moved by ultra-conservative cultural and identity politics to the exclusion of social and economic issues) proves this.

The tradition of general goodwill needs to be nursed back to health or it will not drive the McGuinty Liberals the way many Peterson Liberals, and the people in social movements that pressured them, were driven in 1985. That’s why the first sign of McGuinty’s statesmanship will be his decision to give or deny the small NDP caucus the opportunity to deal with the political and cultural toxins created by neo-conservatism. If untreated, the legacy of two Tory terms in government will stymie positive politics for a long time.

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