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Ontario gains will shrink federal pains Add to ...

If – and it’s a very big if – the federal Liberal Party can recover, the first steps lie in Ontario.

Ontario is where the federal party developed a fortress under Jean Chrétien. Ontario is where the party still raises money, boasts some MPs, and can still feel a pulse. It’s the home province of the temporary leader, Bob Rae.

A defeat for the provincial Liberals would be a severe setback bordering on disaster for their federal cousins, especially if the New Democrats surged. It would demoralize Ontario Liberals, brand the name Liberal as being in irreversible decline, and deprive the party of the government in the country’s largest province.

Yes, Liberals govern in two other large provinces, Quebec and British Columbia, but the links between the federal and provincial Liberals in those provinces are weak. In Ontario, however, provincial and federal Liberals work together in campaigns when they can. The parties have many of the same members. The provincial and federal riding boundaries are identical, so riding associations tend to resemble each other. Put simply, the provincial and federal parties are more closely aligned than in Quebec and B.C.

(We haven’t forgotten doughty Prince Edward Island, where the Liberals govern and where they’re expected to win next month’s election. With great respect to Islanders, a national comeback won’t start in a place with four federal seats.)

That Ontario votes Liberal wouldn’t automatically usher in a federal Liberal return to prominence. Federal Conservatives did well in Ontario while the Liberal governments of David Peterson and Dalton McGuinty presided at Queen’s Park. Conservatives governed in the Pink Palace, while federal Liberals ran the Ottawa show.

No, it’s more a question of a morale boost for the federal Liberals that their provincial cousins hang on to Queen’s Park, especially if Mr. McGuinty’s party can bounce back from being written off by pundits before Labour Day. Maybe it’ll be an illusion, but some federal Liberals will say to themselves: If the provincial Liberals can come back, maybe we can, too, in Ontario.

The provincial Liberals are being assisted by the apparent inability of provincial Conservatives to get a grip on the tricky politics of diversity in Ontario, a mistake their federal counterparts didn’t make.

The Harper Conservatives assiduously courted ethnic communities, especially South Asians and Chinese, and were greatly rewarded electorally for their efforts. They embraced the province’s diversity, without jeopardizing their core anglophone vote, even winning some ridings with large francophone minorities.

For two elections in a row, the provincial Conservatives have been tripped up by the politics of diversity. In the last election, the promise of then-leader John Tory to extend public funding to private religious schools sank the party’s chances. It seemed like panhandling for votes with certain groups, and it ran against Ontarians’ strong preference for an inclusive public school system (even if a parallel one operated for Catholics).

Now the Conservatives are trying to make hay over a modest Liberal promise to offer a tax credit to employers who hire immigrant professionals who’ve been in the province five years or less. It’s no big deal of a promise. It would cost very little money, and likely affect the behaviour of only a handful of firms. The pledge might be called blatant ethnic politics, but it produced a furious Conservative counterattack that inflated the issue way beyond its import. The Conservatives, thinking they had a wedge issue, wound up looking tone-deaf beyond their core supporters, who tend to be overwhelmingly white, older, rural and small town.

Watching the Conservative overreaction makes one wonder whether the Liberals intended this to happen or just got lucky. Either way, the provincial Liberals seemed to gain from the kerfuffle.

And every little gain by the provincial Liberals has to be cheered by their federal cousins, not just because they’re on the same team but because a provincial Liberal comeback win would make federal Liberals feel a whole lot better. Even illusions of better days ahead beat the dreary realities of today.

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