The provincial election in Ontario was fundamentally about Tim Hudak’s austerity agenda, specifically his plan to cut 100,000 public sector jobs. There were of course local and regionally differences in terms of what motivated voters, but ultimately this election was a referendum on Hudak’s plan.
And on that front what happened was positive. Ontario voted down the most pro-austerity party and by and large labour’s campaign to stop Hudak worked. The Tories were thoroughly trounced at the polls.
However, this anti-Hudak sentiment was translated into a Liberal majority. And it’s hard to celebrate four more years of Bay Street’s favourite party. The NDP on the other hand lost whatever power they had despite increasing their seat and vote count. They did manage to pick up and consolidate their hold on the areas hardest hit by 11 years of the Liberals’ job killing policies. The St. Catherines, Hamilton (Horwath did lose votes in her own riding), London, Niagara, Oshawa and Windsor Essex regions all saw NDP seat pick-ups or vote increases. But they also lost major ground in the GTA.
So why did this happen?
The Tories lost in part because the Hudak faction of of the provincial Tories that runs the show wanted to win with a mandate. They weren’t battle tested and this translated to many a misstep on their part. Hudak has faced repeated internal dissension about his full frontal attack strategy ever since his gaff-ridden 2011 campaign.
The NDP in the run up to this election lurched right, trotting out populist ideas such as a hydro rebate and a tax cuts for small businesses. They even undercut their base by refusing to support the 14 dollars an hour minimum wage. When the election was called, Horwath ran on an anti-corruption, fiscally responsible platform. This strategy was in part predicated on the idea that the NDP could eat into the base of the Liberals. This reflects a generalized lesson from the 2011 federal campaign. The path to victory for the NDP at all levels and regions is now seen as replacing the Liberals on the left-centre, not shifting the political terrain to the left. The problem is that the 2011 breakthrough was more the result of an implosion by the Liberals and the Bloc than about a smart NDP move. Dumb luck was elevated to the level of Napoleonic strategy.
The Liberals tacked left when Wynne came into power, which has confused many on the left. To avoid disorientation, we have to put this in context. When Wynne came to power, the party was in crisis, the gas plant and Ornge scandals were blowing up, the NDP won the Waterloo by-election the previous fall and the Bill 115 fight had put the party on its back foot. The NDP was actually ahead in the polls in the fall of 2012. Wynne and her team correctly saw the writing on the wall and shifted the party moderately to the left to recapture some lost support.
This eventually lead to the Liberals crafting a budget that they could brand as progressive. This was a Machiavellian manoeuvre designed simply to ensnare the NDP. A deeper reading of the so-called progressive Wynne budget shows it was anything but.
After the election, Wynne stated she was eager to get down to the business of governing, declaring that we live in uncertain times and we have to work with business to bring Ontario back. This means creating the “leanest government” and
“dealing with the reality of our situation.” It was quite clear that Liberals would be quite happy to continue to impose austerity under the guise of dealing with our debt.
The Toronto Star editorial put it this way: “inevitably, the Liberal government will face its own hard choices. That will almost certainly mean confrontations with public sector unions. Their leaders should not confuse voters’ rejection of Hudak’s deep cuts with complacency in the face of stubborn government deficits. Wynne has a mandate to govern and to balance the books – and that will mean asking some to take less.”
Matt Gurney from the National Post tried to console Tories by letting them know that austerity was still on the agenda. He says, “Premier Wynne is going to oversee the harshest spending restraint since the harsh spending restraint she cites as her reason for getting into politics in the first place. Whodathunkit?”
Or as the Toronto Sun put it, with their usual reactionary ballyhoo, “welcome to hell, the sequel.”
Despite the divisions within the labour movement the fight against Hudak was effective. The OFL’s #StopHudak town halls educated and mobilized thousands of workers and labour activists in the province. The labour movement also aggressively went after Hudak in the air war.
However, the limits of this strategy are now apparent. We defeated Hudak but are still confronted with austerity. Labour united around a minimum program of stopping Hudak, but when faced with the Liberals, it’s quite easy to see this mobilization fading out.
With respect to the NDP, it was clear labour leaders such as Fred Hahn and Sid Ryan were not pleased with the NDP and the election call. Both have intimated that there will be a reckoning, probably in the form of a leadership challenge. Under Horwath’s leadership, labour has been marginalized in the party’s inner circle. This begs the question if the NDP isn’t even reflecting the desires of the labour leadership, let alone the members, what is the NDP about?
The task for the left and labour is to fight the urge to demobilize what was fundamentally an anti-austerity movement. We must recognize that in terms of orientation, working class militants are fragmented into various camps: those that still remained with the NDP, those who strategically voted, and those who stayed home. The first camp still is the largest layer of union activists. Those in the GTA who are rightfully doom and gloom about the NDP must also look outside Toronto and recognize why large sections of the working class in northern and southwestern Ontario haven’t broken from the party.
The immediate task for union activists and other leftists will be figuring out ways to unite these fragments through organizing. The $14/hour minimum wage campaign, Stop Line 9 and the fight to Save Canada Post are just some campaigns that can push labour and the left away from complacency and petty squabbles and towards mobilization. Hudak was stopped but the austerity train is still full steam ahead.