As part of my continued (foolish, deluded, pathetic) mission to demonstrate that Canadian politics is both interesting and highly amusing, I present unto thee a guide to the principle parties of the province of Ontario, which will shortly be holding elections:
Ontario Liberal Party – currently led by Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals are a rather dull managerialist centre party and have been the dominant force in provincial politics over the past decade as Ontario’s voters finally tired of drama and decided that, frankly, they preferred things to be bland, insipid and uninspired thank you very much. They were re-elected on much the same platform in 2007 and 2011 despite objectively sucking at actually running things more complex than a lemonade stand. Which tells you something. The Liberals are effectively a party of urban Ontario, particularly Toronto and its surrounding suburbs. Most of its remaining rural bastions in the South West and East of the province were lost – quite probably forever – in 2011. In the cities where it thrives it is mostly strong in upscale districts and amongst minorities. In general it has the feeling of a party of power, although this may well be an illusion. It was not always thus: ousted from power in 1943 the Liberals spent the next four decades in perpetual opposition and spent much of this period as a repository for rural voters unhappy with the Big Blue Machine. This changed in 1985 as the PCs disintegrated in a mess of unpleasant factional infighting: a deal with the NDP allowed for the formation of a minority Liberal government under the charismatic/arrogant leadership of visionary leader/hubristic blowhard David Peterson. The Peterson government was re-elected in a landslide in 1987 but suffered an unexpected landslide loss to the NDP in 1990 after Peterson foolishly called a snap election despite corruption scandals, a dodgy economy and a Canada-wide constitutional crisis. The Liberals were unable to seriously exploit the failings of the Rae government, nor of the ultra-right wing Harris government that followed and remained in opposition – and always leading the opposition – until voters had enough of all that drama shit and fell in love with the creepy Norman Bates look-a-like Dalton McGuinty who promised them the mildly ineffectual tedium that they now craved.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Party – currently led by charmless hack Tim Hudak, the PCs were once more or less what the Liberals are now (i.e. a principle-free party of power based in the province’s major cities), but have spent the past few decades as a party of remorseless hardline Thatcherites. The frankly unnerving ideological zealotry of the 1990s is gone, but the transformation seems permanent. Successive poor performances have left much traditional PC territory in and around Toronto in Liberal hands, leaving the PCs as a party of rural Ontario (including those parts that were traditionally Liberal) and of Toronto and Ottawa’s outermost suburbs and dormitory settlements. Under the leadership of various extremely dull and extremely Upper Canadian figures (with names as clichéd as ‘George Drew’ and ‘Leslie Frost’), the ‘Big Blue Machine’ ran the province – though not always with a majority – from 1943 until 1985, when pent-up factional issues exploded on the election of the overtly right-wing Frank Miller as party leader. Miller alienated many urban voters and was also damaged amongst rural protestant voters by the decision of his moderate predecessor to extend funding for Catholic schools in the province.* The PCs rightward shift solidified in opposition and culminated in the long leadership of humourless Thatcherite hatchet man Mike Harris (1990-2002). Harris led the PCs to an unexpected landslide – Ontario has a thing for these – over both the hapless Rae government and the overconfident Liberal opposition at the 1995 election. Significantly he did so on an openly hard-right platform: the so-called ‘Common Sense Revolution’.** Traditionally ineffectual opposition from the Liberals and the sad state of the demoralised and broken NDP meant that the PCs won a second term in 1999. The Common Sense Revolution was every bit as insane as its name suggested, and Harris’s poorly planned Thatcherite ‘revolution’ ultimately led to the deaths of seven people in the small town of Walkerton as regulatory failure caused by a botched privatisation resulted in the pollution of the town’s water supply. Harris suddenly resigned in 2002 and was succeeded by an old crony called Ernie Eves who led the PCs to a landslide defeat in 2003. Since then the PCs have flopped around in a rather purposeless manner (including a period when they were led by the gloriously incompetent John Tory) but have not fundamentally changed the message.
Ontario New Democratic Party – currently led by Andrea Horwath, the NDP is Ontario’s social democratic party of record and while it usually finishes third it has occasionally challenged for power (and on one occasion was luckless enough to actually win it). It is a party of Ontario’s manufacturing towns and its remote industrial North. It also retains a degree of strength in Toronto, but is a shadow of its pre-Rae strength in the city. Both its strength in working class areas outside Ontario’s great cities and its relative weakness within them have been reinforced by the populist approach of the Horwath leadership. The Ontario NDP is officially the Ontario wing of the national NDP and like the national party it was formed out of the more overtly left-wing CCF – which had come heartbreakingly close to power in 1943 – in the 1960s. Under a succession of urbane Toronto-based right-wingers it made steady progress in the 1960s and 1970s and for a time had a larger caucus than the Liberals. A swing to the left under a new leader in the early 1980s resulted in the inevitable electoral rebuff and another leader in the traditional (‘right-wing’, urbane, Toronto) mold: Bob Rae. Initially quite successful – under his leadership the NDP worked with the Peterson Liberals to topple the Big Blue Machine and then avoided serious electoral damage in the 1987 landslide – things started to go horribly wrong for Rae and for the NDP the moment the party was unexpectedly swept to power in 1990. The Rae government was an abysmal failure and put back the cause of social democracy in Ontario several decades. Details can be found elsewhere; for now it is enough to observe that the Rae government managed to alienate both the NDP’s working class base and the new voters it gained in 1990 and that the loathing it inspired at all points rightwards contributed directly to the appeal of the Common Sense Revolution. At the 1995 election the NDP were beaten into a poor third place. Leadership of the shattered party passed to the well-meaning but ineffectual Howard Hampton who led it to a further electoral collapse in 1999 as the logic of ‘strategic voting’ saw the NDP relegated to near irrelevance. Hampton remained leader until 2009 and presided over a slow rebuilding of the party, a process aided by fading memories of the Rae government (and quite probably by Bob Rae’s contemporaneous decision to enter federal politics as a Liberal). Hampton was succeeded by Andrea Horwath, who in 2011 led the NDP to their first credible result since the defeat of the Rae government, despite running a campaign that clearly alienated many voters in Toronto.
There’s also a Green Party, but they never win anything so who cares?
*They were opposed to this because bigotry. Sometimes things really are that straightforward.
**’Common Sense’ presumably being defined as ‘the petty prejudices of greedy small minded bigots’. This is often the case.