When the Ontario Liberals recently rescheduled their annual general meeting from the end of this month to late March, they sent an obvious signal that Kathleen Wynne intends to call a pair of by-elections soon. The Premier clearly wants all available bodies in the contested ridings of Thornhill and Niagara Falls rather than debating policy resolutions or constitutional amendments.
The Liberals also sent an inadvertent signal when they changed their plans – not because of when their convention will be, but because of where.
Perhaps it was just a matter of logistics that caused it to be moved from London, Ont., to downtown Toronto. But the symbolism of the Liberals' latest retreat from the southwestern corner of the province is hard to miss, because of the fate that awaits them in the general election likely to come this spring.
It is difficult to overstate how dramatically the governing party's fortunes have fallen in the part of Ontario hit hardest by the economic woes of recent years. Before the 2011 election, the party held 15 of its 21 ridings. It is down to just five, and sources in all three provincial parties say internal polls show the Liberals running third there.
The Liberals are unlikely to be shut out completely in the southwest – the university town of Guelph is a stronghold, and Health Minister Deb Matthews has a good chance of holding onto London North Centre. But they will be hard-pressed to keep their lone remaining seat in the Windsor area, they could easily lose Kitchener Centre (where it is not entirely clear Government House Leader John Milloy will run again) and will be out of play in most ridings they might have hoped to recapture.
Their southwestern collapse has no single explanation. After sweeps to power in 2003 and 2007, they held some ridings that were not especially Liberal to begin with. To some extent, any government of the day might have been blamed for a manufacturing-sector decline largely the result of global trends. Former premier Dalton McGuinty invited that anger to be directed toward his party with unpopular policy initiatives, most notably his ill-considered green-energy strategy, and by seeming to turn his back on the region after the last election. While Ms. Wynne has made more of an effort, her close association with Toronto does not help.
In any event, it stands to create a unique dynamic in the coming campaign. While elsewhere the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats will square off primarily against the Liberals, in the southwest they could be fighting each other, with the governing party all but a bystander.
While PC and NDP officials insist that would not dramatically alter the case they make to voters there, signs to the contrary are already showing, including more criticism than usual by the Tories of the NDP. While it remains to be seen if New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath will hold up to the scrutiny brought by good poll numbers, Tim Hudak's party – which currently holds the majority of southwestern seats – has cause to be a little spooked by research suggesting the NDP is ahead in the region.
Barring a sudden surge on their part, meanwhile, the Liberals may soon have to consider whether effectively to give up on most southwestern ridings, shifting their resources to places where they are more competitive.
Making that decision would be a lot tougher than choosing to pull out their pre-election gathering, because it would cause them to fall behind organizationally in a way that could keep them uncompetitive in the southwest well beyond this election cycle. But at this point, the relationship may look hopeless enough to make their retreat more than just symbolic.