Ontario Liberals are looking into the abyss. This isn’t news. Premier Kathleen Wynne said as much already when she conceded defeat, a rare admission by a campaigning incumbent Premier.
But how bad will it be? And then what?
We’ll know Thursday night where the Liberals will stand, but they stand to face drastic losses. Reaching 10 seats at this point will be a triumph. Our numbers at Pollara Strategic Insights, applied to a seat model, indicate there is a greater likelihood that they will be reduced to five or less seats.
Canadian politics provides us with several examples of tsunami elections where incumbent governments were literally washed away:
- 1987 New Brunswick (58 Liberal, 0 PC). Premier Richard Hatfield had governed uninterrupted since 1971, but by the mid 1980s, his government had lost its way, not to mention Hatfield’s own personal scandals. Upstart Liberal leader Frank McKenna mobilized the electorate behind his active, youthful leadership.
- 1993 Canada (PC’s reduced from 169 seats to 2 seats). After two successive majority PC governments, the fallout of the Charlottetown Accord defeat, rise of Preston Manning’s Reform Party, and imposition of GST had dealt fatal blows to the Mulroney government. Despite leadership change and the first and only female prime minister in Canadian history, the PCs were obliterated. The Liberals had been dealt a hobbling blow themselves in 1984 -their worst outcome since Confederation. Not only did they return with a majority under Jean Chretien in 1993, a key part of three successive wins was their utter domination of Ontario.
- 2001 BC (77 BC Liberals, 2 NDP). The BC NDP pulled a rabbit out of the hat in 1996 when incumbent NDP Premier Mike Harcourt gave way to one of his ministers, Glen Clark. Clark won a majority by a thin margin. However, Clark’s government was quickly under siege early and never recovered. Clark resigned and Ujjal Dosanjh led the NDP into an electoral clearcut. Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won the largest majority in the province’s history.
There are examples where governing parties have been rendered extinct – the BC Social Credit, United Farmers of Alberta, Alberta Social Credit, Saskatchewan PCs, and Union Nationale come to mind.
The Ontario Liberals look to finish well below Richard Hatfield’s PCs and Ujjal Dosanjh’s NDP in terms of popular vote. They have fallen below the “pitchfork line” – my newly coined phrase that I am marketing to Canada’s political science professors. It’s that line where – once crossed – a government will never recover because a critical mass of voters is so angry that the incumbent government cannot overcome that passion and intensity.
It’s hard to believe that the Ontario Liberals will become a political DoDo bird. It’s more likely they will rise again, in due course. Among the stages of recovery:
- Walk of humility
- The professional class gives way to the true believers and new believers
- New governments eventually screw up, therefore, opportunity
- Momentum builds for a comeback
- Time passes, change is inevitable
1987 New Brunswick – the PCs came back and won the first election after the retirement of McKenna. It took a while to rebuild and the flash-in-the-pan Confederation of Regions Party supplanted the PCs briefly during that period. But eventually, voters stopped punishing the PCs and Bernard Lord’s PCs returned to power in 1999. (12 year recovery)
1993 Canada – From two seats, the PCs climbed to official party status, then the merger with the Canadian Alliance, which had evolved itself from the Reform Party. After forcing a minority in 2004, Stephen Harper won the 2006 election and governed for nine years. (13 year recovery)
2001 BC – the NDP were reduced to two of 79 seats. They roared back in 2005 almost upsetting the Campbell government, and for the next three elections, there was a 4-point standoff between the governing BC Liberals and NDP. After 16 years, in 2017, the NDP returned to power, with support from the Green Party. While missing their chance at the 12 year mark, they are there now. (16 year recovery)
Whatever happens on June 7th, the Liberals will not be dead, they will just be resting. In all likelihood, they will be back some day. The three-party system is well-established in Ontario. Maybe it will be the 12 to 16 year range like the examples above. Or maybe the volatility of today’s politics will expedite that process.
I will draw from my own personal experience. My first campaign was in 1984 when as a Liberal in the Mission-Port Moody riding, I saw the pitchforks first-hand. Voters were very angry with the Pierre Trudeau government and weren’t buying the change that John Turner offered as his replacement. While burma-shaving on the Lougheed Highway in that summer campaign, the rage emanating from the commuters was hotter than the pavement we were standing on. We were clobbered, going from government to 40 seats – the most humiliating defeat for the Liberal Party since Confederation. Yet, the Party rebuilt, made a hard charge during the 1988 election, and then won a decisive majority in 1993. A nine year recovery.
In 1988, I was on hand for Liberal Sharon Carstairs’ amazing breakthrough from one to 20 seats in Manitoba, only a few seats from governing. Then again in 1991, for BC Liberal Gordon Wilson’s rise to Official Opposition from zero seats. Turnarounds can be faster than people expect, especially in the social media age. I mean, six months ago, did anyone – anyone – expect Doug Ford would be the next Premier of Ontario? Anything can happen.
Ontario Liberals can learn from the 2011 federal election and events thereafter. It was a humiliating loss for Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals and many touted a Liberal-NDP merger, with the NDP having the strong hand. Until halfway through the 2015 election campaign, it looked like Tom Mulcair’s NDP were the primary opposition to Harper. Justin Trudeau turned the tables and governs today, taking his party from third to first in probably the most dramatic comeback in Canadian political history.
A huge loss can be a good loss. It allows for new growth and regeneration. The Liberals will shake off “government-itis” in the face of the obvious. Voters will want to see that the Party has learned its lesson, has changed, and is offering new leadership. Internally, the party will need to heal and unify.
Electoral wipe outs – and subsequent recoveries – speak well for our system. There is elasticity. Voters are in charge, punishing when they are mad, generous to parties that change and renew. Parties that can take a punishing hit, rebuild, and contend for power are examples of parties that strive to be inclusive, rather than staying in a narrow box that only appeals to a narrow slice of voters (like the Greens, for example). For Ontario Liberals, this phase may be over, but it will also be the beginning of something new.