Politics, the old saying goes, makes strange bedfellows.
So considering that, don’t expect Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to be crestfallen if Kathleen Wynne wins the Ontario election. By the same token, don’t be surprised if Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals aren’t crying in their soup if Tory Tim Hudak comes out on top.
That doesn’t make a lot of sense, until you consider the peculiar propensities of Ontario voters. They veer in one direction when marking their provincial ballots, the opposite federally. They almost never double up.
If precedent is any indication, they’ll be less likely to vote for Mr. Harper’s Conservatives in the federal election next year if they’ve put Mr. Hudak in power in Ontario. Likewise, the Trudeau Liberals’ chances of scoring well in the province that matters most might not be as good if Ms. Wynne is on the throne at Queen’s Park.
Ontario’s track record on bifurcation is so consistent that it’s hard to chalk it up to coincidence. Former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty won twice in Ontario while Mr. Harper was winning federally. Tory hard-liner Mike Harris marched to victory in Ontario as arch Liberal Jean Chrétien was winning in Ottawa. Mr. Chrétien swept almost every one of Ontario’s 100-plus seats while Mr. Harris was winning provincial majorities. Figure that one out.
Liberal David Peterson and New Democrat Bob Rae took the province during the years when Brian Mulroney’s federal Progressive Conservatives governed through two majorities. Tory Bill Davis was elected in Ontario through most of Liberal Pierre Trudeau’s years in power. While Liberal Lester Pearson was being elected federally, Ontario voters plumped for Tory John Robarts.
The conflicting voting habits go back even further: Ontario voters elected Tories George Drew and Leslie Frost five times provincially while Liberals Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent won at the federal level.
There have been just a handful of exceptions. Mr. McGuinty won his first mandate in 2003, when Mr. Chrétien was still in power. And Mr. Frost won in 1959, when Conservative John Diefenbaker was in office in Ottawa.
At this rate, Mr. Harper might be praying for a collapse by Mr. Hudak, and Mr. Trudeau wishing the same on Ms. Wynne.
You could say Ontario voters are a distinctly bipolar breed. You might also say they are a cagey lot: They seem to want offsetting forces – not too big a dose of one party or the other.
The coming provincial and federal elections could be setting the stage for another flip-flop. With his campaign pledge to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs and other policy planks, Mr. Hudak is conjuring up visions of Mr. Harris (minus the smooth golf swing). Should he win as a core conservative, will Ontarians be inclined to opt for four more years of the Harper brand?
On the Liberal side, if Kathleen Wynne is victorious following all the troubles of her predecessor, it could well leave a distaste for the brand that would make a breakthrough for Mr. Trudeau more difficult.
In the first week of the Ontario campaign, Ms. Wynne switched the focus to federal politics, blaming Mr. Harper’s Conservatives for the big decline in the province’s manufacturing base and griping about cuts in equalization payments that will cost the province $640-million.
Neat trick, that. She should have been running scared because of her own party’s record. But she threw the spotlight off of it and engaged the federal Tories, who are not very popular these days and who could hardly take the high ground on the Ontario Liberals’ scandals, having just gone through the Senate expenses fallout themselves.
Ms. Wynne may have had history in mind. Maybe she was saying to Ontarians: You’ve got these bare-knuckled Tories in Ottawa already; do you really want them running the province, too? Better to maintain your strange, bipolar ways.