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Tories choose new leader in Ontario

By Mark Wegierski
web posted September 13, 2004

Ontario is Canada's most populous province, with over ten million people (Canada's population is around 31 million), and is the destination for over half of immigrants to Canada. Toronto has especially become a cosmopolitan megalopolis, with over half of its population (according to the 2001 Census) consisting of "visible minorities" (a term of official usage). The so-called Greater Toronto Area has a population approaching four million. In the current federal Parliament, 106 of 308 total seats are from Ontario, giving that province enormous clout. It could be argued that the federal party which holds the majority of Ontario seats is likely to be the government of Canada.

Ontario's provincial politics have followed a somewhat different course than federal politics in Ottawa. In 1942, the federal Conservative Party changed its name to the Progressive Conservatives, in an attempt to attract the support of the Western-Canadian-based Progressive Party – although the name was also convenient in a society which largely looked with disdain at right-wing politics. All the provincial wings of the party followed suit in the name change.

From the 1940s onward, the provincial Progressive Conservatives successively won elections as the government of Ontario. However, the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Bill Davis (in 1971-1985) had been largely hostile to any manifestations of social and cultural conservatism – they were pragmatic managers in a period of massive social upheaval and transformation – which was mostly generated by the Liberal federal government in Ottawa. Frank Miller, Bill Davis' successor, was only briefly Premier, and was characterized by the media, the opposition parties, and even by some members of his own party, as a political dinosaur. Miller's defeat in 1985 ushered in two years of a Liberal-New Democratic Party coalition (1985-1987). The NDP were Canada's (and Ontario's) comparatively small but highly ideologically energetic social democratic party. In 1987, Liberal Premier David Peterson turned on his coalition partner, and won a majority government. In 1990, the NDP rather unexpectedly won a majority in the provincial election which Peterson had imprudently called early. The NDP endeavored to push through a rather extreme left program, which resulted in its wide unpopularity.

In 1995, Progressive Conservative Mike Harris was elected Premier of Ontario. The provincial Progressive Conservatives were decidedly more right-leaning than the federal wing of the party, partly because of the reaction to the five years of NDP government in Ontario. Indeed, the unpopularity of the NDP brought in Mike Harris and his so-called Common Sense Revolution. Mike Harris won a majority government in 1995 as well as 1999. However, he resigned in 2002. Although Harris claimed to resign for personal reasons -- the controversy over Walkerton, where a number of people died from an infected water-supply -- and for which the main blame was firmly placed in many people's minds on Harris's privatization policies – was certainly a factor. The Progressive Conservative party leadership race between Ernie Eves and Jim Flaherty brought the decidedly more moderate Eves to the Premiership. However, in the October 2, 2003 provincial election, the Liberals, under Dalton McGuinty, won 72 seats (with 46.5 per cent of the popular vote), the Progressive Conservatives, under Ernie Eves, 24 seats (with 34.6 per cent of the vote), and the NDP (under Howard Hampton), 7 seats (with 14.7 per cent of the vote). (As in federal elections, the provincial election operates under a system of "first-past-the-post".)

Upon coming to power, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have broken a number of major promises to the electorate, in a fashion more egregious than usual – for example, raising taxes, running the provincial budget into a deficit, and re-introducing healthcare premiums for the strained healthcare system.

The winner of the upcoming Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership contest will therefore probably be fairly well-positioned to significantly challenge the provincial Liberals in the next election – although it is a number of years away, and the situation could obviously shift repeatedly during that time.

The three candidates for the leadership are Jim Flaherty, Frank Klees, and John Tory. John Tory is a professed "moderate" and had an opportunity to build up his base in Toronto when he ran in an energetic but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Toronto Mayor in 2003.

Whatever the outcome of the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership contest, and the eventual provincial election in Ontario, Canada has certainly been marked by massive social transformation and upheaval since the 1960s, and it is likely that these trends will continue. For example, Canada was the third country in the world (after the Netherlands and Belgium) to recognize "same-sex marriage." At the same time, it has embraced multiculturalism, affirmative-action (called "employment equity" in Canada), and programmatic "diversity" with a great intensity. Indeed, the federal Liberal Party (assisted by the incredibly ideologically energetic New Democratic Party) has been practicing "activist", "transformational" politics in the last four decades, decisively transforming the social and cultural landscape to maintain itself perpetually in power.

During the Quebec referendum crisis of 1995, it was said that the failure of current-day Canada would tend to extinguish much hope in the world of creating successful multicultural societies. Indeed, Canadian traditionalists and conservatives might well be looking to various forms of "provincialization" or regionalization to challenge the federal government behemoth. Perhaps Ontario, with its longstanding, local Conservative Party traditions, can play some role in the direction of this de-centralization. A Progressive Conservative government in Ontario may also assist the recently reconstituted federal Conservative Party (formed in December 2003 out of the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the "ultra-moderate" federal Progressive Conservatives) in winning a larger share of Ontario seats in the federal Parliament, thereby finally offering a chance of displacing the federal Liberals.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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