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Ontario Liberals look for support after alienating unions

With this week's unveiling of legislation that could impose tough new contracts across the broader public sector, Dalton McGuinty took yet another step toward casting off the union support that helped him win three straight elections.

This weekend, as Ontario Liberals gather in Ottawa for their annual general meeting, the Premier and his braintrust will try to explain to nervous party members how they can win a fourth election anyway.

Attempting to make a political virtue out of fiscal necessity, campaign manager Don Guy will give a presentation on Saturday aimed at showing what a new coalition of supporters might look like. While Mr. Guy is characteristically keeping his cards close to his chest, other Liberals suggest the strategy will involve trying to peg off right-of-centre voters who usually opt for the Progressive Conservatives – boxing out Tim Hudak's Tories, and presenting the Liberals as the responsible alternative to Andrea Horwath's surging NDP. It's not going to be an easy sell to the party faithful, but it's one Mr. Guy and others need to make. Because to have much hope of winning another campaign, without organized labour on board, the Liberals will need to lean more heavily on their activists than they have in a very long time.

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It's not just that they'll no longer have union-funded ads attacking their opponents – the influence of which, given the spots' typical clunkiness, has been somewhat exaggerated. It's also that they'll no longer have shelter from the decline in political engagement that has made it more difficult for most parties to run their campaigns.

There's a reason why, in the last election, Mr. Hudak more or less stopped holding rallies: It was too difficult to pull out a crowd. That can be chalked up partly to Mr. Hudak's uninspiring message, but it's not as though Ms. Horwath was drawing the masses either. Other than (maybe) casting a ballot, most people aren't all that interested in engaging with a political class they hold in increasingly low regard, particularly at the decidedly unglamorous provincial level.

Mr. McGuinty, on the other hand, was able to speak to full rooms more or less every night. Sure, it helped that he was Premier, with a well-oiled campaign machine behind him. It also helped that union members – from teachers to firefighters – were at the Liberals' disposal.

The same factor came to bear, more consequentially, in volunteerism. From knocking on doors to putting up signs, the Liberals simply had more resources than their opponents.

Now, that advantage has shifted. Earlier this month, the Liberals watched their old union supporters campaign for the NDP in a pivotal by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo; the New Democratic candidate cruised to victory, while the Liberal placed a dismal third.

While by-elections can be disproportionately influenced by a relatively small number of activists, it nevertheless sent a message about what ground battles could look like in the next general campaign. It's not as though a right-of-centre business crowd will suddenly start pounding the pavement on the Liberals' behalf. So that leaves the folks who will be attending this weekend's convention to fight a battle more lonely than their previous ones, in support of an agenda that many of them – who joined their party precisely because they're opposed to spending cuts – aren't all that crazy about themselves.

Mr. McGuinty and his strategists will tell them that the austerity agenda is really about preserving the public services they hold dear, and is consistent with their values. More than just setting their minds at ease, they'll need to fire them up. That new coalition, after all, won't just build itself.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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