The two leading parties in the Ontario election ran campaigns focused not on the middle of the electorate, but on the fringes. This election was the Progressive Conservative Party’s to lose, and that Tim Hudak did. He mistakenly chose to run a campaign designed to motivate the Conservative base. The hard-right platform failed to win over anyone else. He did, however, succeed in frightening some voters into shifting to the NDP and Liberals. Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals also aimed at a voting base, albeit not their own. The Liberals drove their campaign bus on the left side of the road, the better to pick up frustrated NDP supporters, including NDPers afraid of a Hudak government. In a few key ridings, it worked. But to govern successfully, and to give the province a chance to climb out of the fiscal ditch, the next government has to stop focussing on the edge of the road. As premier, Ms. Wynne is going to have to move back toward the centre lane.
Ms. Wynne campaigned on a platform built on contradictions. On the one hand, she held herself out as the candidate who would protect public service jobs and public services in general against the axe-wielding Mr. Hudak. On the other hand, her campaign budget promises a zero-per-cent increase in program spending for the next three years. That bottom line – no new spending for three years! – is an austerity budget. But her campaign promises and her rhetoric amounted to what many supporters called the most progressive budget in a generation. The equation doesn’t solve. Something is going to have to give.
The good news is that Ontario is not in a state of fiscal crisis. It has a deficit that has to be brought down, and the job is doable. The challenge, however, is that Ontario is already the most efficient (or least inefficient) provincial government in Confederation. It spends less per capita than any other province. And it has to become still more efficient yet to get its fiscal house in order.
To do that, Ms. Wynne should scoop up some of the Tories’ better ideas. At the top of the list of ideas worth stealing? The Conservative plan to save $2-billion a year by eliminating most subsidies and grants for business. The game of business supports is murky, dirty and powered by lobbying. Government needs to get out of it as much as possible. In principle, the Liberals should be open to this. They ran on protecting public services, not private subsidies. But Ms. Wynne also promised a new, $250-million-per-year fund of additional money to attract business to the province. Again, the contradictions. Again, something is going to have to give.
Liberals have a history of running a bit more to the left, but governing a bit more to the right. The challenge is that Ms. Wynne didn’t campaign on a platform of hard choices. That doesn’t change the fact that she is going to have to make them.