Can the provincial Liberals keep their stronghold in Toronto?
Its most popular sports team may be blue, but for years Toronto was an impenetrable Liberal red fortress, a dependable bulwark that withstood changes in municipal, provincial and federal governments.
But the May 2 federal election was a game-changer.
The Liberal party was eviscerated, losing 14 of their 20 Toronto seats while the Conservatives and NDP picked up eight each. Even Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lost his Etobicoke-Lakeshore seat to Conservative newcomer Bernard Trottier.
With the provincial election fast approaching, it remains to be seen whether the blue and orange waves will return to the 416. Going into the election, the Ontario Liberals hold all but four Toronto seats. No provincial Tory has been elected in the city since 1999.
But the upcoming election could once again reshape Toronto’s political landscape, says Eglinton-Lawrence Progressive Conservative candidate Rocco Rossi, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor and previously served as national director of the Liberal Party of Canada.
“There’s a real appetite for change and it should come as no surprise,” Rossi asserted. “This is not a Liberal fortress anymore . . . There’s nothing inevitable about voting Liberal.”
However, some observers say the Liberal party still has a shot at defending its seats.
Akaash Maharaj, senior resident at Massey College and former national policy chair for the Liberal Party of Canada, predicts the fight will take place on dramatically different battlegrounds.
“I think the Liberal party certainly can win Toronto and the election, but it will be a close-fought race,” Maharaj says. “Unlike previous elections, this will be a race where each of the three parties will be fighting one another.”
Maharaj sees the Ontario Liberal party facing several challenges: voter fatigue after several consecutive elections, a wave of sympathy and respect for the NDP after Jack Layton’s death, and strained relations between municipal and provincial governments.
And, Premier Dalton McGuinty, who is seeking the leadership for a third time, faces one of his most visible hurdles: the spectre of his own success.
“A (third) additional term is certainly not unheard of in Toronto history, but it is unusual in recent history,” Maharaj says.
But even if McGuinty’s majority government is toppled, the Liberals will most likely retain a few seats in Toronto, says Nelson Wiseman, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto.
“I’d be surprised if the Conservatives don’t make some gains if we’re talking 416, (but) I think there’s still some Liberal strongholds,” Wiseman says. “I don’t think they’ll lose Toronto Centre or St. Paul’s.”
Both ridings are currently represented by MPPs who came to office in by-elections. Glen Murray was first elected in Toronto Centre after fellow Liberal George Smitherman stepped down to run for mayor in 2010. In St. Paul’s, Eric Hoskins replaced Michael Bryant in 2009, after the Liberal MPP stepped down to become CEO of Invest Toronto.
Wiseman senses vulnerability in Don Valley East and West, both of which saw Liberal incumbents toppled by Conservative candidates in the May federal election, he says.
“It’s going to be a challenge for the Liberals. They’re going to be squeezed on both sides.”
But what has turned the tide and disproved the truism that Toronto is largely Grit territory?
Part of the answer may be simply hard work, says U of T director of Canadian Business History Joseph Martin, who believes the Tories will gain Eglinton-Lawrence.
“What I picked up from voters from that riding who were not Conservative supporters was that they were much more impressed by the quality of the (Conservative) campaign,” he says. “The Conservatives federally were certainly working harder on the ground.”
But Maharaj suggests the change is only one aspect of a broader shift in Canadian politics, where Canadians are not as willing to identify themselves as a staunch Liberal or Conservative.
“Today I think Canadians are far more mobile in their loyalties, and parties know that they have to re-earn their supporters,” Maharaj says. “And if they don’t, someone else will.”
A demographic featuring prominently in that assessment is the ethno-cultural community. Maharaj says the evaporation of steadfast loyalties is part of the reason the Liberal stronghold could be crumbling.
“There was a time during my parent’s generation when the vast majority of visible minorities could be counted on to vote Liberal,” he says. “Today, visible minorities are active in every political party.”
Rossi says the Progressive Conservative party pounced at the opportunity to show new Canadians that many perceived immigrant values such as hard work, family values and entrepreneurship are also “small-c” conservative values.
“Many people in the ethno-cultural community have felt taken for granted by the Liberals,” Rossi says.
If that is indeed the case, it could be the Ontario Liberal party’s undoing, Maharaj says.
“If (Toronto) has been consistent, it has been in its willingness to punish politicians who appear to take it for granted,” he says.
Ethnic communities are no longer seen as free votes and instead play a marked role in the planks of various election platforms.
For example, the accusation that John Tory was pandering to new Canadians when he proposed funding for faith-based schools became a significant “club” during the last provincial campaign and McGuinty’s proposal to provide tax credits to businesses that hire immigrants with professional credentials could play a similar role, Maharaj says.
However, the Progressive Conservative’s reaction to the proposal has also been criticized as being divisive, due to Tim Hudak referring to new Canadian citizens as “foreign workers.”
“I guess you could say that ethnic minorities in Toronto have gone from being pawns to being clubs,” Maharaj says. “I don’t know if that is an improvement or not.”
Wiseman says the immigrant employment proposal could become the definitive issue of the election and could lead to McGuinty’s downfall because he doesn’t feel it presents a convincing approach to creating economic growth.
“They’ve already done something wrong on this immigration thing,” Wiseman says. “I think that’s a potential Achilles’ heel.”
There are a number of other factors that could have an effect on the provincial Liberals maintaining their Toronto stronghold. One potential positive for McGuinty is that it’s rare to have three levels of government represented by one political stripe.
“Historically, almost since confederation, Ontarians have said if we have one party federally we’re going to have another provincially,” Martin says, noting an exception in the Jean Chrétien era because there was no real Conservative alternative.
Another factor with less clear ramifications is the popularity of Mayor Rob Ford. While the mayor has previously threatened to unleash “Ford nation” upon the premier if he doesn’t provide enough funding for the Sheppard subway extension, some say that threat is hollow in light of the recent outcry over proposed service cuts.
“In a very, very short span of time, Ford nation has become a depopulated state,” Maharaj says. “If anything, the dynamic has reversed.”
There is also the fact that 20 Liberal incumbents are not seeking re-election. Martin says it “can’t be good news” because incumbency has definite advantages.
Toronto-Centre Liberal MPP Glen Murray disagrees.
“I think it’s very good, you want new blood. The worst thing that can happen when you’ve been in government for a long time is having the same old people stick around.”
“Governments either renew themselves by bringing in bright, new, diverse views and opinions … or they become stale.”
But no matter what colour washes over this city come Oct. 6, it’s likely political leaders across the province, and indeed the country, will be watching Toronto closely. The reason is that since amalgamation, the city has become more important, Maharaj says.
In the last municipal election, no other individual politician, including the prime minister, received as many votes as the mayor of Toronto. This means the mayor holds more sway over more people, which leaders from all levels of government realize could make or break them.
“Certainly, Torontonians can take solace in the knowledge that no one is taking them for granted now,” Maharaj says with a laugh.
“At least during an election campaign.”