In grudgingly giving Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberals an opportunity to form the next government, Ontario voters expressed their discontent with all options. The Liberals must now urgently address the twin challenges of an economic downturn and a large deficit.
Mr. McGuinty governed and campaigned as a reformist moderate. He exhibited the most depth and consistency of the party leaders. Some of his policies are divisive, even wrong-headed, as in much of the Green Energy Act. But voters were looking for experienced economic management. Mr. McGuinty offered some of that, and his successes and aspirations in education resonated.
He did not coast in his second term; he brought in the HST and cut pharmacists' fees. In his new government, he needs to apply that resolve in areas where it has hitherto been weak, particularly in dealing with public-sector workers and institutions. He needs to deliver on the zero fee increases he wants from doctors, and must take a similarly hard line with others, such as universities. He must continue to reform health care and contract out more services to reduce health-care costs. And he needs to reconnect with entire parts of the province – rural Ontario, the North – that rejected him.
The public never had great faith in Mr. McGuinty; power was there for Tim Hudak's taking. But the Progressive Conservative leader erred by embracing fear. He mounted sustained attacks on Liberal policies with “foreign” beneficiaries. He defended a misleading pamphlet on sex education that had homophobic undertones. And he attacked Mr. McGuinty, rather offering his own positive option.
Mr. Hudak can learn from his mistakes, build on his fundamental thoughtfulness and likeability as a politician – traits that got buried in a campaign of sustained negativity – take the growth in vote that his party achieved, work harder in urban Ontario, and emerge as a stronger candidate next time.
The NDP returned as a more significant legislative presence under a personally appealing new leader, Andrea Horwath. They may have new relevance, in spite of old, damaging ideas about government intervention in the economy. That is not in the Ontario mainstream, and if she hopes to exert influence in the legislature, Ms. Horwath will need to begin some ideological renewal within her party.
The Liberals' mandate at Queen's Park is tenuous. Mr. McGuinty will need to exercise some new political skills to renew his cabinet and hold on to power. With bold steps to reduce public-sector spending, continued reforms in health care and narrow, targeted interventions in education, the Liberals can lead Ontario through the troubled times to come.