Ontario Election: Focus turns to the Television Debate, Minority Scenarios

Ontario Election: Focus turns to the Television Debate, Minority Scenarios
As we hit the one-month mark in the campaign, the race between the Liberals and PCs remains a relatively close one, with the NDP still working to find their voice. While the PCs have dominated the policy landscape with their “Million Jobs Plan,” estimates of the number of jobs that would be created under their plan have been put in serious doubt. The PCs are probably hoping that a discussion between academics and opinion leaders over methodology will be lost in the clutter of election news cycles, or that another issue, such as the MaRS “bail out,” quickly changes the channel.

Although on the defensive yesterday, the Liberals probably feel comfortable with their position and the execution of their campaign, which has focused on a theme of “what government can do for you.” The PCs will likely continue to question the credibility of the Liberals’ promise to balance the books by 2017-18 without public sector job cuts or major tax hikes. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s decision to run a more populist campaign has resulted in some overt discord from the more left-leaning faction of the party.

A piece in the Globe and Mail by Gerald Caplan, and a letter from the traditional base of the NDP criticized Horwath’s strategy of running on populist issues, rather than the usual social justice platform we’ve come to expect from the NDP. The NDP have responded through third-party supporters, and have sharpened their attack on the Liberals with what Horwath calls the party’s history of “corruption.” Their decision to go negative now is being closely analyzed.

Liberals Unveil Platform, Face Questions Over Balanced Books Commitment
Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals are pleased with this week’s platform rollout. With the release of “Kathleen Wynne’s Plan for Ontario” and the Leaders’ northern debate, Wynne had an opportunity to articulate additional commitments that were not included in the 2014 Budget. The most prominent of these was her promises to invest $1 billion in the Ring of Fire, irrespective of financial support from the Harper government. A smaller, albeit populist, commitment made by the Liberals in their platform was a cap on hospital parking lots fees.

All was not rosy this week, however. As noted above, when asked if she would make her own cuts to public sector jobs to balance the books, Wynne struggled to answer the question. Moreover, an unauthorized release of confidential cabinet documents revealed that a provincial government proposal to bail out the MaRS Phase 2 tower in Toronto could cost taxpayers up to $477 million.

Tories’ Math Faces Intense Scrutiny
PC Leader Tim Hudak faced a challenging week on the campaign trail. Increased scrutiny of the job creation math behind his “Million Jobs Plan” – and in particular the difference between “person years of employment” and permanent jobs – threatened to undermine the credibility of a jobs creation plan that he has placed at the centre of his campaign. In addition, his absence from the Leaders’ northern debate was highlighted prominently in the media coverage leading up to and after the event. This left the PC campaign often managing issues, taking time away from articulating their vision for Ontario to voters. In addition to raising the MaRS bail out, the PCs were also able to inject questions about the Liberals’ commitment to balancing the budget by 2017-18 into the campaign. This bore some fruit when Kathleen Wynne was unable to provide a clear answer on whether her plan to do so included any public sector job reductions.

Horwath’s Populist Strategy Creates Dissension within the Ranks
After veering to the centre and taking a more populist approach, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath faced public criticism from prominent party members. How this criticism will impact traditional NDP voters remains to be seen. At the Leaders’ northern debate, Horwath sharpened her knife and went on the offensive, attacking Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals as “corrupt” and offering the NDP as the best alternative. Many observers expect her to crank up her attacks as we approach June 12th.

Minority Government Possibilities
We have been asked what would happen if a single political party fails to win a parliamentary majority on June 12th. While it is impossible to predict what the election result will be, what we do know is that, as the incumbent Premier of Ontario, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne will enjoy the right to face the Legislature and seek its confidence. Her right takes precedence over that of any other party leader, even if the Liberals have not won a majority or plurality of the seats.

On the chance that one of the three major political parties does not attain a majority of the Legislature’s seats, we thought now would serve as a good opportunity to review how minority parliaments function in the Westminster model, starting with two principles that underpin our system:

  1. Voters elect a parliament (or legislature) – they do not elect a government; and
  2. A government is one that can obtain and maintain the confidence (support) of a majority of the legislature’s members

When a party wins a majority of the Legislature’s seats, all of this is very straightforward. When no single party wins a majority of seats, however, parliamentary parties have the right to work together, explicitly or implicitly, in order to form a government. Minority governments can take the form of:

  • a coalition government, where members from two (or more) parliamentary parties form a government together;
  • an accord where there is a formal agreement between two (or more) parties stating that one party will support the other party as government as long as certain conditions are met and often for a specified period of time; or
  • a situation whereby one parliamentary party will serve as government and be supported on an ad hoc basis by another parliamentary party (or parties).

As the official representative of The Queen and the province’s de facto head of state, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (LG) can play an important role in ensuring the formation of government. In preparation for such a possibility, the LG surrounds himself with an informal collection of constitutional advisers who are prepared to provide him with confidential advice rapidly should it be necessary. The sitting Premier, however, always serves as his primary constitutional adviser. Traditionally, the LG exercises the right “to advise, encourage, or warn” the Head of Government (the sitting Premier), but there have been exceptionally rare instances in Canadian and Commonwealth history when the LG has disagreed with the Head of Government’s advice (e.g., the King–Byng affair).

StrategyCorp has developed a more detailed backgrounder that could serve as important context in the event that voters elect a minority parliament on June 12th. It includes four cases and can be found here.

While Horwath and Wynne debated in Northern Ontario earlier this week, all three leaders will go head-to-head for the first time in the Leaders’ Debate carried live on the evening of June 3rd. Tim Hudak declined to attend the Northern Debate, leading some observers ‎to speculate that his move was designed to allow a regional boost for the NDP. As is typical, the debate will probably end up being about the personality of the three leaders, not about policy. It is also unlikely to change the minds of committed voters. But, given a large percentage of the electorate is not tied to any one political party, the debate presents an opportunity for the party leaders to showcase themselves at a time when more people are likely to be paying attention.

In an election as uncertain as this one – and one that has largely failed to galvanize Ontarians thus far – this could count for something. Given the increased scrutiny they have received over the last week, pressure is building on both Hudak and Horwath, and the debate offers them an opportunity to overcome recent difficulties. But the willingness of any leader to veer from the safety of their well-tested message may well depend on the polls in the lead up to the debate. The dynamics of the three leaders will also be interesting to watch – this is the first time in Ontario history where two female leaders will be on the stage. Whether this alters the debate dynamic or party strategies remains to be seen. The debate could have a strong impact on voter intention, but history shows the opportunity only exists if the party leaders can capitalize on it.

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