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Ken Kirupa, Ontario PC candidate for Scarborough-Guildwood, canvassing with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Photo by: Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The five provincial by-elections in Ontario on Thursday do not add up to a mid-term election, but they have proved to be quite competitive. That is a welcome development. It is an opportunity for voters to express themselves and to let the Liberal government led by Premier Kathleen Wynne know that it can do better – and that the Liberals will need to try harder if they are to recover the majority they lost in 2011.

The Liberals' troubles with the extraordinarily expensive cancellations of two gas plants continue, with the revelation of remarkable errors of judgment by Liberal staffers. The chief of staff of Dalton McGuinty, the former premier, sought a legal opinion about a possible defamation action against opposition politicians on the gas-plant controversy – for exercising the vigorous scrutiny that an opposition ought to provide. Other political staffers in Mr. McGuinty's office appear, from recently recovered e-mails, to have sought to pressure the Speaker to restrain the opposition on the same matter.

All this might not seem to reflect directly on Ms. Wynne. But one of the current by-election campaigns carries strong symptoms of the same disproportionate anxiety for victory in individual ridings that evidently gave rise to the gas-plant mess. At one level, it worked; in 2011, the Liberals did keep the two ridings concerned.

This summer, the Wynne government has tied itself in similar knots. Recently, the Liberals were very firm that they agreed with the recommendation of Metrolinx, the provincial transportation agency, in favour of a light-rapid-transit line, rather than a subway extension, in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. The riding of Scarborough-Guildwood is very much in contention. Suddenly, the Liberals have become converts to the subway line.

The broader point, however, is that the Wynne government has not yet presented a clear, strong direction that could overshadow a few instances of undue catering to local interests.

The Liberals, under Ms. Wynne, may yet convince the province that they deserve a new mandate in the next general election. The message in this summer's by-election campaigns, however, seems to be that Ontarians are fed up with opportunism and will be looking for a confident opposition, for a fresh option.