There have been many surprises in the lead-up to the June 7 Ontario election and there may be fresh twists in the remaining days. But one thing appears certain: The governing Liberal Party will finish third in what could be a hung provincial Parliament.
Although at least one recent poll has the NDP moving into majority-government territory, most show the New Democrats and Conservatives essentially tied, which could lead to no party winning a majority of seats.
A minority-government situation would present Kathleen Wynne’s party with an impossible choice: Prop up a Conservative government led by Doug Ford, which would outrage Liberal supporters or back an NDP government led by Andrea Horwath, which would raise existential questions about the future of the party.
“They would have no space in the political spectrum,” observes Nadia Verrelli, a political scientist at Laurentian University.
After almost 15 years in power, the Liberals badly need to rethink and rebuild.
”They need to go back to their roots,” Prof. Verrelli said in an interview. Beyond choosing a new leader – Kathleen Wynne is almost certain to step down if the party loses on June 7 – the Liberals need to define what they stand for and whom they represent, in a world where New Democrats, at least temporarily, are the dominant progressive party.
Propping up an NDP minority government would actually make renewal harder, as the Liberals struggled to decide, vote by vote, whether to bring down the government and force another election, or allow Premier Horwath to remain in, and consolidate, power.
Being a king- or queen-maker in a minority-government situation does have some advantages. “They will hold some cards, here, and should be able to get some concessions,” says Daniel Rubenson, a political scientist at Ryerson University. In the event of a hung legislature, he believes the Liberals should have a core list of demands, which either the NDP or the Conservatives would have to meet in order to win Liberal support.
That said, he believes it would be impossible for the Liberals to prop up a populist Conservative government, because Mr. Ford “is antithetical to everything they stand for.”
Which leaves the Grits with three realistic choices in a minority-government situation. The first would be to form a coalition with the NDP, in which Liberal MPPs would have seats in cabinet. Such a scenario is unlikely; when the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the governing Conservatives in Great Britain in 2010, the smaller party was blamed for the coalition’s failures, was given little credit for its successes and was devastated in the next election.
In the second option, the Liberals could sign an accord with the NDP, such as Bob Rae’s NDP signed with David Peterson’s Liberals in 1985. In that case, the NDP guaranteed two years of stable Liberal government in exchange for Mr. Peterson’s promise to enact certain NDP priorities. But the New Democrats fared badly in the following election and the Liberals might fear a similar fate.
That would leave the third, and most likely, option: propping up the NDP on a vote-by-vote basis. This is what Sid Noel, professor emeritus at Western University, expects to see.
Nonetheless, this would place the Liberals in a very weak position. “You have to go back to the days of Wellington Hay,” for a result as calamitous as the Liberals face in this election, Prof. Noel observes. Hay took the Liberals to a third-place finish in the 1923 Ontario election.
But the Grits returned to power in 1934, under Mitch Hepburn, just as they returned in 1985 after 42 years of Conservative rule.
There are political scientists who “all their careers were counting the Liberal Party out,” Prof. Noel reminds us. And yet, the Liberals always find a way to claw themselves back into contention. (He is too polite to mention that certain journalists, including this one, have made the same mistake.)
Ontario is mostly an urban and suburban province. The Liberals are at home in that environment. An NDP government, if one is formed, will be filled with rookie MPPs and an inexperienced cabinet. It may well stumble.
If it does, the Liberals will be waiting in the wings. The question is how long that wait will be.