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Ontario Election Buzzwords Lose Their Sting

I spent this morning at a powerful symbol of this campaign: the "abandoned" Mississauga power plant. I say "abandoned" because Dalton McGuinty now says he will "move" it. Sure.
Flickr: abdallahh

With the kick-off to Ontario's 40th general election on Oct. 6, The Huffington Post Canada kicks off its coverage with lively, ongoing debates between three of the smartest and most plugged-in politicos in the province: John Duffy arguing for the McGuinty camp; Jason Lietaer (@jasonlietaer) in Hudak's corner; and Heather Fraser (@ottawafraser) duking it out for Horwath. Check in with every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

Jason Lietaer (PC):

Buzzwords have been flying around the last day or so: polls, ground game, GOTV, wedge, momentum. But soon, the talking's over and the voting starts.

I spent this morning at a powerful symbol of this campaign: the "abandoned" Mississauga power plant. I say "abandoned" because Dalton McGuinty now says he will "move" it. Sure.

Somebody forgot to tell the local workers. I stood with a Globe and Mail reporter and witnessed this exchange with a man on the worksite:

Globe: "Are you still building the plant?"

Worker: "We sure as hell aren't tearing it down."

A reporter confided in me that this must be the most under reported story of the campaign. It really is surreal to watch 50 or so workers go to a job site every day and shovel tens of millions into a hole that the premier of the province has said will stop. It must be seen to be believed.

But it's only a symbol. The real question elections always come down to is change or more of the same. There are two different visions in this campaign: one that understands the increasingly tougher time that families are having and one that says grin and bear it.

We were in west Toronto today not because the plant is the most important issue facing Ontario. But because it represents everything that's wrong with this government.

This government starts projects guns blazing. Then it changes course. Then it pays top dollar to get out of its commitments. And taxpayers are left holding the bag.

Governments make mistakes. But how many times have you seen Mr McGuinty look into the camera, apologize and say he'll never do it again? For me, it's at least one too many.

Liberals are crowing about polls, but surprisingly silent on the one on the front page of the Star this morning which shows Tory support up. All I know is this: we've raised more money during this campaign than before... we've identified more supporters to get to the polls than ever before... and we're competitive in ridings we never thought were possible. Going to be an interesting e-day.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

Tomorrow is the big day and I am looking forward to it.

But first things first -- congratulations to Greg Selinger and Manitoba's New Democrats on a fourth majority. Manitobans have experienced 14 years of progressive, stable and responsible government. Good to see his message of affordability resonate with voters.

Now, about tomorrow. The choice before voters is not simply to change or not to change as the Liberals and Conservatives would argue. It's about what kind of change. And that question will be on the minds of voters tomorrow. And while Liberals and Tories have spent the campaign focused on mudslinging and sandbox politics, Andrea Horwath and the New Democrats have stubbornly talked about issues and solutions.

Horwath has visited seven ridings today to encourage our volunteers and bring positive choices to voters across southern Ontario. She has clearly outlined our five priorities for the first 100 days. She's stayed away from nasty, cynical politics. These are going to be our priorities no matter what sort of legislature Ontarians decide to elect.

This is the first provincial campaign in Ontario in a long time that I can honestly say that I am looking forward to tomorrow's results. Although different pollsters are giving different numbers, every pollster is noting the NDP's continued upward trend. Our support is at a record high and we have a strong GOTV team pulling this vote. We are expanding our support in ridings where we are competitive for the first time in years. New Democrats across the province are inspired and excited by the momentum we are seeing in non-traditional ridings throughout southwestern Ontario, the 905, and the North.

Andrea Horwath and her team have run a great campaign, and I for one can't wait to see the result.

John Duffy (Liberal):

I want to begin by thank Jason and Heather for a thoughtful, stimulating discussion. I hope readers have enjoyed it as much as I have.

A few weeks back, we kicked around the abstract, one-word themes of each campaign. To mark the campaign's end, let's see how these concepts fared over the long pull.

For the PCs, I suggested "restitution" -- the idea that Mr. McGuinty's Liberals in power have politically favoured selected groups and interests, and that the privileges and benefits that have flowed to this clientele should be removed and distributed around the public at large in the form of tax cuts. This is the idea behind Mr. Hudak's cry that "Ontario cannot afford four more years of Dalton McGuinty." It's not a plea for spending restraint or fiscal discipline; it's a demand for restitution. And how has it gone over? My guess is that the message hasn't resonated much outside of a relatively narrow base of Ontarians, concentrated geographically in the province's marginal areas, where folks feel with some justification left out of the Liberal-governed swing of things. A key factor to look for tomorrow night is whether the message carried with more than the core PC vote -- say, the 32 per cent that John Tory polled in 2007.

For the New Democrats, I offered "aspiration" -- the upbeat, optimistic "positive change" message that Heather has hewed to so eloquently in most of her posts. I am torn on this one. On the one hand, the NDP appears to have grown its support substantially in this campaign. Hats off to you, Heather. On the other hand, a lot of this growth may have actually come at the expense of your party, Jason. Again, the geography suggests so. The NDP are making their fiercest assaults in the province's hardest-hit industrial and resource-extraction zones: Hamilton-Niagara, Northern Ontario, Essex County. So I'm of two minds as to the success of the "aspiration" campaign -- perhaps it obscures a more grim set to the mass of 2011's NDP vote. If true, this would suggest that the NDP has not so much carried forward the new-politics halo of its late federal Leader, as reclaimed its pre-1995 status as the party of the neglected outsider.

As for the Liberals, my one-worder for them was "unification." My sense is that the Liberals, rather than the NDP, have captured what optimistic energy there is in Ontario. Their vote is concentrated in the growing parts of the province: Ottawa, the GTA, the Technology Triangle. Take a look at the little-understood, and sometimes mocked, report from the Martin-Florida Prosperity Institute, "Ontario in the Creative Age," issued in 2009. Want to see how campaign 2011 turned out? Look at the interactive maps showing the competitiveness of the province's census metropolitan areas. You'll find that the high-scoring, job-creating, wealth producing places track pretty closely with the ridings that are expected to go Liberal tomorrow night. In other words, the optimistic insiders and the upward-moving middle class have been captured by the Liberals. So, the Conservatives may be onto something in accusing the Grits of governing on behalf of the select. But when so great a swath of the province appears to be in the tent, it's hard to accuse Mr. McGuinty of governing for the select few. There's a lot more folks in the Liberal coalition than just a bunch of eHealth consultants and wind farm developers. And Mr. McGuinty's campaign appears to have welded them together in this campaign.

The message of unity and optimism captured in the slogan "Forward. Together." has been the secret weapon of Mr. McGuinty's effort. His team has relentlessly stoked the inherent optimism and resilience of its universe of potential voters. In so doing, I would argue that the Liberal campaign has connected with the sense of aspiration that Ms. Horwath's campaign sought, and has fallen short of. It has also, with telling effect, worked to pushed Mr. Hudak's campaign towards a more marginal position.

Whatever the contemporary reality of Ontario's economy and society, this is still a province that thinks of itself as a winner. Its origins lie in the transformation of a defeated group of Loyalist exiles reinventing themselves as 19th-century empire-builders. Its audacious rise as an industrial power after the Second World War was fueled by similarly breathtaking confidence. One need look no further than the mid-century nuclear program, or the 400-series highways, to see the scale on which this province has dreamed and built its future. Like his predecessors Sir Oliver Mowat and Leslie Frost, whose esteemed ranks he may perhaps soon join, Mr. McGuinty has captured that spirit and made it his own. We'll see how far it carries him tomorrow night.


John Duffy, political strategist for the Ontario Liberal election campaign, is also the founder of StrategyCorp and author of author of 'Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.' Jason Lietaer, the Hudak campaign's communications director, is also the vice president of public affairs of Enterprise Canada. Heather Fraser, representing the NDP, is the director of communications for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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