Toronto's Tory swing the big surprise

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Sun Media, Friday, May 6, 2011

The road to a Conservative majority always ran through 905, the suburban belt around Toronto. But no one imagined it also swung through 416, the city itself.

In the end, it was the Greater Toronto Area that delivered Stephen Harper’s majority, giving 30 out of 45 seats to the Conservatives, up from 14 in the last House, where the Conservatives had 143 seats, 12 short of majority territory.

In 905, the Conservatives swept the region with 21 out of 22 seats. In 416, where the Tories hadn’t won a single seat since 1988, they won nine on Monday.

While the Conservative sweep of 905 was years in the making, the breakthrough in 416 occurred only in the last week of the campaign. In their most optimistic predictions, Conservatives thought they might win as many as four seats in the city.

What happened? The NDP’s rise in Quebec gave voters in Ontario reason to consider an opposition coalition led by the socialists rather than the Liberals.

Or as Harper put it in his closing push, with Jack Layton driving the car and Michael Ignatieff reduced to the role of passenger.

While some Ontario Liberals voted for the NDP to prevent Harper from getting a majority, others held their nose and voted Conservative to make sure he got one.

The echo effect from Quebec was unmistakable in Ontario, where the NDP brand is permanently damaged from the 1990-95 Rae government at Queen’s Park.

“It was the first thing I heard at the door all week,” says Stella Ambler, who easily defeated 18-year Liberal incumbent Paul Szabo in the suburban seat of Mississauga South. “People kept saying, ‘we’ve got to stop the NDP.’ ”

Why would voters in Quebec and Ontario have such different reactions to the NDP, surging to them in one province and shrinking from them in the next?

First, Quebec voters have no memory of NDP government.

Then, Quebecers weren’t really voting for the NDP, they were voting for Jack. Not only did they like his message of accommodating Quebec within Canada. They liked his personal narrative, the cancer survivor running a gallant campaign, of which his cane became a symbol.

They were also voting against the Bloc Quebecois. Layton’s surge from the low 20s to low 40s in the polls began the day after Gilles Duceppe told a Parti Quebecois convention on April 17 that with a strong Bloc deputation in Ottawa, and the election of a PQ government in Quebec, “everything then becomes possible again.”

Another referendum

What he was meant was another referendum, the last thing anyone wanted.

The rising NDP tide became a tsunami, electing 58 members in a province where previously there had been only one, including half a dozen who are still in college.

In Ontario, while voters equally admired Layton, they have definite memories of the NDP in government, none of them good.

Vote splitting between the NDP and Liberals also benefited the Conservatives. Then the Tories had a ballot box bounce in Ontario, winning 44% of the vote, with the NDP and Liberals essentially tied in the mid-20s.

Looking at the Tory and opposition splits in the last polls Monday morning Finance Minister Jim Flaherty saw a majority in the making in Ontario.

“We’re good,” he said. “We’re there.”

Good call.

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