Guessing whether or not if there's going to be an election if the government's in a minority position is a fool's game. In 2008, Stephen Harper decided at summer's end that the opposition parties were just too intractable to work with, and pulled the plug. In 2011, the House fell suddenly in the spring as the government cabinet was found in contempt of parliament. Here in Ontario, pretty much all last year, the Magic 8 balls were out as people supposed that within weeks of Kathleen Wynne's election as leader of the Liberals there would be an election. Not that there might be an election. But Wynne's been Premier for a year now, and with another pair of by-elections behind us the 8-balls are out again. Could they yield different results this time?
Before getting to that, let's look at the by-election results. First Niagara Falls, the former riding of Liberal incumbent Kim Craitor, and where the Ontario government front-loaded about $100 million in new spending just before the writ was dropped. That extra money, if it was for political benefit, came to not in the end with the race coming down to a close two-way split between the NDP and the PCs. Niagara Falls city councillor Wayne Gates beat former MPP Bart Maves 39.4 per cent to 36.8. Liberal candidate Joyce Morocco finished a distant third with 19.4 per cent. Niagara Falls is typically a bell-weather riding, and the last time they elected an NDP MPP was in 1990 during Bob Rae's sweep of the province.
In Thornhill, things went more or less the same as they did in the 2011 election. Optometrist Gila Martow kept the riding for the PCs, beating Sandra Yeung Racco, a Vaughan city councillor for the Liberals. The vote was split 48 to 41.5 per cent, which is roughly the same numbers from the 2011 were PC Peter Sherman beat Liberal Bernie Farber 46.7 per cent to 41. If there is a bright side for the Liberals it was that they were highly competitive in the PC-friendly GTA in the midst of a serious drought in popularity. It at least suggests that the Liberals could still be competitive in a general election in spite of their 11 years in power and numerous scandals.
That's good news for the Liberals in terms of the bigger picture. A recent Ipsos-Reid poll puts the support for the PCs at 34 per cent followed by the Liberals at 31, which means that statistically the two parties are in a dead heat. With the NDP at 28.5 per cent, what we're looking at is a very close three-way race in Ontario.
That's a theory compounded when you consider an aggregate of all current polls, which puts the PCs at 33.3 per cent, the Liberals with 32.7 and the NDP at 28.5. Translated to actual seats that means 40 for the Liberals, 38 for the PCs and 29 for the NDP. As the legislature stands now, that's a loss of 9 seats for the Grits, a gain of 1 for the Tories and 8 more seats for the Dems. If you thought congestion is bad now at Queens Park, wait until all three main parties basically share the governing of Ontario equally.
So what's a party leader to do? For Andrea Horwath, she might be thinking it's now or never. The momentum is pretty much all hers, and since the first by-elections in 2012, the strategic victories have also been hers. If there's ever been a time in the last 20 years when it seemed most likely that we could get even an NDP minority government, it would be now. Horwath's also got to be thinking that now, like in 1990, her party might be seen as an acceptable alternative to the traditional red and blue, whom the majority of the electorate are fed up with anyway.
On the other side, momentum is Tim Hudak's problem because he's got none. If he makes any gains in a general election, it will be out of spite. At this point, the most that Hudak can hope for is a minority government, and that's without the benefit of further Liberal scandals or overcoming any of his own blunders. Hudak's blown bigger leads than he has right now, and blown them at the worst possible times. Combined with no clear vision, white papers with ideas that have failed to connect, and the fact that he's having to carefully tip-toe around his one, major policy idea, right-to-work, and it makes you wonder why he's in such a hurry to go to the polls. Despite the unpopularity of the Liberals, Hudak can't seem to seal the deal, and members of his own party already have their doubts about him.
For Wynne, that means staying the course. She can make the case that the Liberals remain the best choice for Ontarians, looking for a happy middle ground between the pie-in-the-sky Dippers and the Draconian Tea Party-light. It's a compelling case that could lead to a lot of people holding their nose and voting Liberal, at least if they bother showing up at the polls. Wynne has proved that she's a shrewd political operator - denouncing McGuinty, holding five by-elections in August, playing it cool with the RoFo situation - I think she understands that her play her isn't to antagonize, but to sit back and see where the wind takes her. In the end, she may be sitting the prettiest of all.