For all those who don’t care much about Ontario politics, my apologies for having laid it on a bit thick this past month. I pledge to be both less parochial and less partisan in the future. I did however feel obliged to write about the provincial election campaign underway (which culminated last night in the surprise election of a Liberal majority government), because like many people I was genuinely alarmed at how far to the right the Progressive Conservative party was positioning itself. On the one hand, this struck me as a poor strategic move, and a violation of one of the most elementary principles of electoral politics (once you have your base locked down, you move to the centre). On the other hand, people in this province are not going to keep electing the Liberal Party forever, eventually there has to be a change of government. So there was an obvious concern that the PCs might ride to power on anti-Liberal sentiment, despite having a platform that is quite far to the right of the vast majority of the electorate.
In any case, it didn’t work. As Chris Stockwell put it last night on TVO, the Ontario PCs have a habit of shooting themselves, not in the foot, but rather in the head.
If you ask me (which admittedly no one has), their biggest mistake was spending too much time hanging around with U.S. Republicans. Canadian Conservatives have an inferiority complex with respect to the United States generally and Republicans in particular. In many ways, U.S. Republicans are “living the dream” of Canadian Conservatives, since they are free to be as right-wing as they like, as tough, as bold, and as anti-government as they like, and yet still keep the liberals running scared. Canadian Conservatives are milquetoast by comparison, and I’m sure they get made fun of at all the conventions (after all, they wind up being forced to support socialized medicine – what a bunch of wimps! If Eric Cantor is a RINO – Republican in Name Only – then what is Stephen Harper? Maybe a SPAAC – Socialist Posing as a Conservative.
Warren Kinsella actually put his finger on this a couple months ago. Asked to identify Tim Hudak’s biggest liability, he said: “His guys attend lots of Campaigns and Elections seminars, where you get taught to be a governor of Arizona. Not Premier of Ontario.” This line really stuck with me, so when I heard that Hudak was going to the American Heritage Institute for economic analysis, and talking with Grover Norquist about tax policy, it set off alarm bells. These people are pretty far to the right of the American political spectrum; by Canadian standards they are off the map. If Hudak wanted to figure out how to occupy the centre right of Ontario politics, the person he should have been talking to was Obama.
In the end, the PCs left the entire centre-right of the field completely vacant. Considering the fact that the Liberals were tilting left, trying to get NDP votes, this was rather extraordinary. The fact that the Liberals wound up stealing no net seats from the NDP, and 10 (I think) from the PCs, is a consequence of the PCs having chosen to vacate so much of the ideological playing field.
Just to be clear what I mean by “centre-right,” consider two important issues: traffic congestion and environmental protection. These are both classic externality problems. The centre-right position on these two issues is to push for market-based rather than more inflexible regulatory solutions. That means road pricing in the case of congestion and carbon taxes (or Pigovian taxes) in the case of environmental protection. And yet no one in Ontario was advocating these two positions. Instead, the PCs adopted an anti-environmental position (promising to eliminate green energy initiatives, lower energy prices, and abolish large swathes of environmental regulation). And with respect to traffic congestion, they adopted a simple “cars good, transit bad” position, while rejecting the “user pay” principle for roads on the grounds that it would be a “tax increase.”
In other words, the PCs took a look at two instances of classic market failure, and instead of saying “we’re going to fix these markets, so that the economy is more efficient” they said “we’re going to ignore these problems, because doing anything would require government action.” In other words, they allowed their ideological hostility toward government to overwhelm their desire to create effective market solutions to pressing economic problems.
This is something that the federal Conservatives have been able to get away with, but that doesn’t mean you can make it work in Ontario. The fact that a political party with views so far from the mainstream has been able to stay in power for so long in Ottawa is a product of rather special circumstances, which are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Most obviously, there is no giant fossil fuel industry in Ontario that benefits from environmental deregulation. And if you look at the huge corridor of ridings that the Liberals won – from Hamilton straight through to Peterborough – that is precisely the area where traffic congestion is generating tangible reductions in everyone’s quality of life. So pretending that there’s no problem there turned out not to be a winning strategy.