Wynne victory leaves federal Tories smiling

With the return to power for another four years of a Liberal government in Ontario, the last major provincial piece of the federal pre-election puzzle has fallen in place.

With the return to power for another four years of a Liberal government in Ontario, the last major provincial piece of the federal pre-election puzzle has fallen in place.

But as to where exactly it belongs in the Canadian big picture, there is anything but a consensus.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP could equally welcome Kathleen Wynne’s majority victory as a sign that the mood of Canada’s largest province runs to government activism.

Wynne did campaign on a left-leaning platform that staked out a large role for government in the social and economic affairs of the province. It could be argued that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s interventionism-adverse mantra took a hit by proxy on Thursday.

Many of the moderate Conservatives whose votes Harper needs to hang onto his Ontario seats next year were apparently more turned off by the hard turn to the right proposed by Tim Hudak’s Tories than by Wynne’s tilt to the left.

The NDP’s efforts to edge closer to the centre did not pay off in additional seats but its support did increase in the popular vote.

On that basis, it would be hasty for the New Democrats to jump to the conclusion that they would have done better had they campaigned further to the left of the Liberals.

If the Ontario results suggest anything, it is that the real edge on the NDP that the Liberals could take into next year’s federal battle is their ability to turn disaffected red Tories into blue Liberals.

Harper’s strategists, for their part, will take solace in the notion that incumbency trumped change on Thursday in spite of voter fatigue with a three-term government.

The Liberal victory leaves the federal Conservatives on the winning side of a pattern that has usually seen Ontario put its eggs in different federal and provincial baskets.

But if recent electoral history suggests anything, it is that patterns are there to be broken. Ask the Nova Scotia NDP or Quebec’s Parti Québécois. Both provinces consistently granted incumbents a second mandate — until they did not in their last elections.

What is certain is that the political dynamics of Central Canada have changed dramatically over the first half of this year.

Both Quebec and Ontario now have majority Liberal governments in place, with long enough mandates to weather the potential fallout of lingering past scandals, as well as outlive the current federal government.

Philippe Couillard and Wynne each have some heavy fiscal lifting to do — and neither has much room to manoeuvre.

Couillard has not yet been in power 100 days and he has already had to cancel or postpone most of the spending promises his party campaigned on.

Reality in the shape of a bulging structural deficit and a mediocre economic environment could similarly catch up to Wynne sooner rather than later.

One way or another, one can bet the family farm on the fact that the premiers of Ontario and Quebec will agree to set their hungry sights on the federal surplus that is expected to materialize between now and next year’s federal campaign.

When all is said and done, the most striking difference between the newly elected governments of Quebec and Ontario involves the nature of their respective mandates rather than their agendas.

Wynne, in contrast with Couillard, was elected with the support of fewer voters than the number that did not bother to cast a ballot.

For the second time in a row, half of Ontario voters stayed home on Thursday.

In Quebec in April, the turnout was 70 per cent.

The result for Ontario’s re-elected government is a weaker mandate that, even with a majority, will make it harder for Wynne to secure a so-called social licence from the public for her more ambitious policies.

In an ideal world, the disturbingly high level of voter disengagement in Canada’s largest province should give impetus to the cause of electoral reform. But it is a rare governing party that would rock the boat of a system that allows it to rule in the comfort of a majority with the support of less than one in five eligible voters.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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