The inability of the Ontario Tories to achieve the widely expected, and win the majority of seats up for grabs in last Thursday's string of provincial byelections, is, like most byelection stories, a boring and parochial non-event lacking much immediate consequence for anyone in Ontario -- let alone outside it. It has, however, provoked a number of pundits to ask an important question about the present state of Canadian democracy. Namely, what the heck does a political party in this country have to do to lose votes these days?
The Liberal government of Ontario is currently embroiled in a messy scandal centering around a brazen abuse of government power for partisan gain. Facing a tough bid for re-election in 2011, former premier Dalton McGuinty abruptly cancelled the construction of two unpopular natural gas power plants scheduled to be built in precarious Liberal ridings, and dumped them in lost-cause Conservative ones instead. "Not in my backyard" indeed.
Outgoing McGuinty apparatchiks would later delete mountains of embarrassing documentation of this decision, which makes sense, given there was absolutely no non-partisan way to justify it. The Tory ridings didn't need the plants (one already had one), and the costs of cancellation were enormous -- somewhere between $585,0000 and $1.3 billion of taxpayer cash, depending on how many fallout expenses (wasted materials, construction of transportation infrastructure for the new sites, legal payouts for breaching contract with the old ones, etc.) you're willing to put in the tally.
The scandal's been headlining the Ontario papers for most of the last year or so, but Thursday's byelections offered the first real opportunity for voters to voice their displeasure. Many expected the results to be a decisive drumming for the Libs, now led by Premier Kathleen Wynne.
It didn't happen. In fact, the Grits won two of the five contested seats, compared to two for the NDP and only one for the Conservatives. The media narrative now holds that a Liberal fourth term is well within the party's grasp, while the death watch has shifted to Ontario's hapless PC leader, Tim Hudak. Everyone hates Tim now; he needs a "winning strategy" to escape "purgatory" and stop being such "a void in a suit," the op-eds say. When it comes to the looming general election, concludes the Globe and Mail's Gerald Caplan, "may the best woman win."
But really, Hudak's supposedly surprising inability to spin the straw of incumbent unpopularity into electoral gold is hardly an unusual story in Canadian politics these days. Practically every single government in this country is massively despised, but rarely is anything done about it.
Despite high unemployment, unpopular new taxes, and a string of scandals, the Liberal government of British Columbia was "surprisingly" re-elected to a fourth term in May.
Despite burying their longstanding reputation as the country's most fiscally competent province under a mountain of spending and debt, the Tory government of Alberta was "surprisingly" handed a 12th term last April.
Despite plunging their province into complete and total irrelevance, the Manitoba NDP won a "surprise" fourth term in 2011.
Of Canada's five biggest provinces, in short, only one, Quebec, has witnessed a change of government in the last decade, and even then, just barely.
There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to our collective fondness for incumbents. It certainly violates the cause-and-effect relationship that's supposed to govern democracies: i.e., good guys get rewarded and bad guys get punished. And let's not go victim blaming either -- despite the easy post-election postmortems, opposition parties are never asterrible on the stump as everyone fashionably asserts after they've lost; their leaders are never that boring, their campaigns are never that poorly-run, and the ruling party's attack ads are never that effective. We don't call their losses a "surprise" for nothing.
A more likely explanation is probably closer to the one offered by Jon Ivison in Friday's National Post: Canadian voters simply aren't taking their responsibilities as guardians of accountability -- the "quaint idea that used to oblige politicians to act in the best interests of society or face the consequences" -- as seriously as they should.
Perhaps it's partially a symbol of our complacent age. Even in this current epoch of misrule, Canada is not a particularly painful place to live (we're no Syria or Zimbabwe) and many of the "bad things" our rulers do -- like blow enormous sums of tax dollars on stupid, useless things -- have little direct impact on the average citizen's life, at least in the short term (and in the long term, who even remembers?). Voter turnout is low, election campaigns are short and uninteresting, and most of us already regard all politicians as liars and thieves by mere virtue of profession, so standards of outrage are forgiving.
Throw in the famed Canadian "deference to authority" and you get a political culture somewhere between Japan -- where voters are too polite to change governments more than once a half-century -- and America -- where everyone claims to hate Congress the thing, but still re-elects Congressmen at insane rates.
Mr. Hudak may be a sucky politician in any number of ways, but if he can't chip away at Premier Wynne's backbench, let alone unseat her, it hardly goes without saying that the main cause is the man's personal flaws.
At some point even the most talented leader still needs voters to uphold their end of the bargain.
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