In Canada’s largest province, the centre of the political spectrum now sits vacant.
There will be no middle-of-the-road, steady-as-she-goes option for voters in Ontario’s June election. Not when Patrick Brown’s attempt to impose the Red Toryism of yore upon the Progressive Conservatives has been replaced by Doug Ford’s right-wing populism. And not after a leftward swing by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, culminating in this week’s deficit-embracing budget, that leaves them touting expansionist government as they never have before.
The Tories’ shift has lately gotten more attention, courtesy of the bizarre soap opera around Mr. Brown’s departure, and his succession by someone who lacks the typical characteristics of a mainstream party leader. But considering that their party has more often than not favoured small-c conservatism over pragmatism since the Bill Davis era ended in the 1980s, it’s not as though a reliably moderate option has only just disappeared.
What has happened with the Liberals is something else. In recent decades, they offered Ontarians pragmatism the way the Tories once did. Under Ms. Wynne they have taken that offer off the table, in a way that reflects their own preferences and circumstances, and points to trends seen beyond Ontario’s borders.
In the run-up to this spring’s campaign, Ms. Wynne has announced policies – fully subsidized daycare for preschoolers and a vast expansion of prescription-drug and dental benefits, elimination of tuition fees for many postsecondary students, billions of dollars in new spending on existing social programs – that will largely define her next term if she gets a chance to implement them. They are to be financed partly through debt accumulation her government now treats as a feature, not a bug. Other moves, such as a rapid increase to the minimum wage, are viewed warily by the sorts of business Liberals prevalent in Dalton McGuinty’s cabinets and an endangered species in hers.
In some measure, all this has to do with the instincts of her strategists. Her campaign chair, David Herle, is known as a strong proponent of targeting Liberal-NDP swing voters rather than worrying about (the smaller number of) Liberal-Conservative ones. He and others tried that approach even when running Paul Martin’s campaigns federally; they have found a better fit for it with Ms. Wynne.
That’s because it comes naturally to the Premier, which is another partial explanation for the shift. She ran further from the left in her first election at the Liberals’ helm, in 2014, than Mr. McGuinty did previously. Pitching policies such as a new provincial pension program that fit her inclination toward social activism, she was credible enough to win back majority government. Then she tried the usual pivot back to pragmatism, and the results ranged from underwhelming (her emphasis on fiscal restraint) to disastrous (her case for privatizing the energy utility Hydro One). Lesson learned.
But this isn’t just a case of the Liberals doubling down on what worked for them last time. It’s also a case of going further than they did then because others have adjusted.
Four years ago, Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats tried to prove they weren’t the spendthrifts or social engineers they’re often taken for by running a campaign focused more on modest pocketbook relief than ambitious programs. Ms. Wynne made them pay for it by convincing potential NDP supporters that if they rallied behind her they could not only stop the PCs from winning, but get more progressive policies than with the NDP.
Ms. Horwath isn’t inclined to let that happen again, so now she’s running on a platform closer to her party’s socialist roots – one that compels the Liberals to move yet further left themselves to execute their strategy again.
In other words, instead of having at least one major party in the centre, Ontario now has two of them competing to demonstrate their bona fides to the left, while the third re-entrenches on the right.
None of this is necessarily permanent: New leaders, which one or two of these parties will likely get postelection, could bring different approaches. And it’s a bit reductionist to lump all political choices into left, centre or right; many voters don’t look at them through so ideological a lens.
But the polarization is hard to miss. And to see it as some isolated happenstance requires tuning out a lot of what else is happening in the world.
Everywhere you look – in mounting anxiety about economic and social change, growing distrust of public institutions, a sense that people in positions of power were long complacent about systemic injustice, the way that social media reinforces political leanings in one direction or the other rather than causing us to question them – there is evidence of how unenticing it is to position as a centrist easily accused of defending the status quo.
Maybe the era when a Bill Davis or even a Dalton McGuinty could thrive politically is over. Maybe a Kathleen Wynne or a Doug Ford is more reflective of what the current era demands. Maybe that’s okay, unless you’re not in the mood for risk.