TORONTO - Voters in Ontario looked past a slew of Liberal scandals, opting for what observers described Thursday as Premier Kathleen Wynne's straightforward, trust-inspiring approach over the tough-to-stomach cost-cutting pledges of her Tory rival.
Wynne's fresh face — she only took office after a leadership contest early last year — likely had a lot to do with the Liberal win, as did her ability to distinguish herself from her controversy-plagued predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
"Her team did a very good job in trying to communicate to voters that she's an intrinsically trustworthy person," said Cristine de Clercy, a director with Western University's Leadership and Democracy Lab.
De Clercy said voters were willing to accept "that although she was part of the McGuinty government, it was really that government — rather than her directly — that ought to bear the responsibility for many of the less fortunate things."
Wynne found herself on the defensive throughout much of the campaign, her opponents relentlessly citing her role in the Liberal decision to cancel two Toronto-area gas plants at a cost of up to $1.1 billion.
She was also taken to task for costly mismanagement at the province's air ambulance service and the agency tasked with developing electronic health records for Ontario.
Wynne went out of her way to apologize for mistakes her party made, but emphasized that she was leading a revamped party that took responsibility for its actions.
"Her own personal integrity and commitment to a better process obviously had resonance with at least some voters," said de Clercy.
"A lot of the weight of this campaign was placed on her shoulders. She made promises to the voters of Ontario that she would change things, that she would address their concerns, and they believed her."
Wynne also succeeded in convincing voters that her Liberal party deserved to form a majority government.
"Kathleen Wynne was successful in refashioning the Liberal party as something that was not Dalton McGuinty, but also reassuring voters that it is the tried and trusted brand that they come to expect," said Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
It remains to be seen how the Liberals will perform in their latest mandate, Rose added.
"The Liberals are infamous for campaigning from the left and governing from the right. So I would expect Kathleen Wynne to adopt some of her campaign platform (promises) but also abandon others."
The Liberals promised to support the province through plans like a home-grown pension plan and cash to entice businesses to invest. The Progressive Conservatives differentiated themselves by promising to cut spending, including 100,000 public sector jobs, while the NDP touted a variety of pocketbook pledges to help working families.
The contrast between the Tories and their opponents likely went a long way towards putting the Liberals in office with a majority, Rose suggested.
"The difference was too stark for most voters to stomach ... they didn't want to take that gamble."
Hudak, who said he plans to step down as leader as soon as a successor is chosen, staked his entire campaign on his Million Jobs Plan: stimulate the economy and create jobs over eight years by shrinking government, cutting corporate taxes and reducing the size of the public sector.
Economists assailed the platform's "million jobs" math, saying it mistook actual jobs for "person-years of employment," essentially counting the same job eight times. But Hudak stuck to his figures, arguing he was the only one being honest with Ontario.
"I think Tim Hudak miscalculated, in terms of his capacity to attract more than his core," said Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.
"People who were hesitating on re-electing the Liberals, who were not happy with the scandals and felt it was time for a change, nevertheless felt continuity was better than this kind of radical alternative."
The NDP, who looked likely to win the same number of seats they had before the campaign started, likely benefited from Hudak's tough-to-muster pledges, Graefe added.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath — who triggered the election when she refused to continue propping up the minority Liberals — faced criticism from within her own party as she shifted her party to the right with more mainstream and business friendly promises, but the move appeared to have paid off.
"What's really surprising is that Andrea Horwath was able to maintain and in fact increase her vote, really at the expense of the Conservatives as the anyone-but-Liberal alternative," Graefe said.
Ultimately voters decided to go with what they knew, despite the mismanagement issues that have plagued the Liberals, Graefe said.
"I think voters moved past that because they've been hearing the same stories about this government for the past two years. I think they priced that into their opinions," Graefe said.
"They knew what this Liberal government was about and if they're still supporting it it's because they felt it was a government that got the big things right."
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