The elections earlier this year in Quebec and Ontario can each be encapsulated in a single moment. On Sunday, March 9, Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois introduced her star candidate, business executive Pierre Karl Péladeau (aka PKP). His fist pump and declaration that he wanted to make Quebec a country triggered fears that a reelected PQ would hold a new sovereignty referendum. Exactly two months later, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak announced that in order to balance the books he “would reduce the size of the bureaucracy by 100,000 positions.” That statement, delivered in a blue suit and sombre tone, would doom his campaign.

In Quebec, the Liberals, led by Philippe Couillard, were already climbing in the polls when PKP entered the scene, but that moment would seal the fate of the PQ, which went on to defeat in the April election. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne won a surprising majority for her Ontario Liberals in June, surprising because at the outset many observers were convinced that scandals, an abiding budget deficit and sluggish economic growth could mean an end to ten and a half years of Liberal rule in Ontario. Thus, Canada’s two largest provinces, which entered 2014 governed by minority legislatures, both have Liberal majority governments as the year comes to a close.

These two provinces, home to nearly 62 per cent of Canada’s population, will elect about 59 per cent of the House of Commons in 2015. Their sheer size and influence on 2015’s electoral outcome means that the two provincial elections will be scrutinized closely by the federal parties. One clear lesson is that the Liberal brand is not dead: it can win provincial elections. The federal Liberals have led the polls in both provinces this year, support that partly reflects the continued strength of the Liberal trademark, not just the popularity of Justin Trudeau.

For Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives, the provincial campaigns featured developments that offer grounds for both hope and gloom. Ontario matters most for the Conservatives. They gained 22 constituencies there in 2011, while losing five ridings in Quebec. It was Ontario that delivered the Conservatives their majority. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s aspirations for his party currently appear checkmated by Trudeau and the renewed Liberal strength in central Canada, but there are mixed messages from the provincial elections for his party as well.

Ontario: The perils of less government and lower taxes

In the Ontario election, the outcome was determined early. Tim Hudak’s out-of-the-gate promise to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs was a strategic miscalculation. The magnitude of the error was confirmed by Conservative MPPs when they caucused shortly after the election. According to the Globe and Mail, the pledge came as “a complete surprise” to Conservative candidates, who confirmed that “the public-sector job cuts came up repeatedly on voters’ doorsteps.” One MPP declared that it was “an anti–Tim Hudak election.”

As well, one cannot underestimate the talent and effectiveness of Premier Kathleen Wynne in changing the direction of the Ontario Liberals. They were a particularly blue Grit party under her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, but she put a truly fresh and progressive face on the Liberal brand, a transformation that was a key to Liberal success. In particular, she made Liberal opposition to Hudak austerity believable.

One obvious lesson here is that voters don’t want to hear an explicit message of austerity with its implications all clearly delineated. It is a lesson Stephen Harper appears to have learned already: much better to obfuscate on the meaning of cuts. Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells offered this contrast between Hudak’s approach and how Stephen Harper dealt with the prospect of federal layoffs likely to come from his spending cuts:

Hudak … decided his target audience was people who think eliminating public sector jobs is always excellent. Compare and contrast: During the 2011 federal election, I worked hard to get a succession of federal Conservatives – Jim Flaherty, John Baird – to give me any indication of the scale of public sector job cuts the Harper government had in mind. Baird pledged, with a straight face, to protect the National Capital Region’s bureaucrats from the kind of ravages the Chrétien-Martin Liberals had inflicted in the 1990s.

The Baird comment seems like satire, but it deflected the point of the inquiry. The outcome of the ideologically polarized Ontario election will no doubt reinforce the federal Conservatives’ penchant for circumspection if not outright secrecy. But they are likely feeling chills down their spine. The Harper parallel to the Hudak PC program is unmistakable. In the middle of the Ontario campaign economist Paul Boothe, a former senior federal finance official, commented on the three parties’ fiscal platforms:

The Liberals and NDP propose to maintain Ontario’s already relatively low program spending at approximately the current level. In contrast, the Conservatives propose to lower program spending substantially to finance a large corporate tax cut now and lower personal taxes once the budget is balanced.

The Harper Conservatives are currently making program spending cuts with the avowed aim of budget balance, but equally to fulfill 2011 promises to cut taxes. Occasionally, as with the protests by veterans’ organizations against the closing of regional Veterans’ Affairs offices, negative political fallout from Harper’s austerity spills into the media. Although not front-page news, reaction to other program cuts is part of the explanation for the federal Conservatives’ current woes in the opinion polls.

Can the delivery of long-promised tax cuts in next year’s budget offset the damage from the spending cuts as the 2015 campaign gets underway? The evidence from Ontario indicates that the answer may be no. If the Liberals and NDP can convince the electorate that Harper’s program is the Hudak doctrine at work in federal politics, the Ontario experience suggests that potential disaster looms for the Conservatives. However, it also suggests that doubts about your opponents matter. This tells us why Harper continues to launch attacks on Justin Trudeau.

North American conservatives generally support the idea of less government spending and lower taxes. The 2015 election will be a test for Harper’s application of this doctrine. He pledged tax cuts in 2006 and started by reducing the Goods and Services Tax by a percentage point on July 1, 2006, and by an additional point on January 1, 2008 – reductions the other parties are reluctant to undo. The budget was in surplus at the time the first cut was implemented in 2006. However, since the federal government went into deficit before the end of the 2008–09 fiscal year, the initial Harper GST cuts have been largely financed with borrowing, a politically easier course taken previously by others such as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Austerity combined with reduced taxes appears to be the Harper formula for reelection but it is politically more hazardous. The federal Conservatives need a strong political recovery. They must do so in the face of Hudak’s demonstration that the less-government-lower-taxes approach isn’t always a recipe for victory. We should not forget that Harper came into office in 2006 by defeating a Paul Martin government running a surplus and offering $30 billion in tax cuts in its election platform.

The diminishing appeal of Quebec nationalism

As in Ontario a strategic error, made early and driven by ideology, determined the outcome in Quebec. The nationalist rhetoric of the PKP press conference would prove toxic for the PQ. The PQ’s intended campaign centrepiece, the Charter of Values, was overshadowed, but as a political tactic the Charter too had its drawbacks. Polling had produced headlines suggesting majority support among francophones. However, Université de Montréal sociologist Claire Durand argued in La Presse after the election that the Charter dramatically increased the electoral turnout among Montreal anglophones and allophones, contributing to 93 per cent support for the Liberals from these groups at the ballot box, an increase from an estimated 76 per cent in 2012. This contributed to the loss of three PQ seats in the Montreal area. Whatever attraction the Charter held for francophones, it did not offset their antipathy to a referendum. PQ ideologies contributed to creating the Liberal majority.

The diminishing appeal of nationalism manifested itself in another context as well. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard made comments in the second TV debate about the desirability of learning English: “We absolutely want to protect our identity, our language … But it has nothing to do with the fact that we want to give our children the chance to learn another language. Is there a parent in Quebec that doesn’t want their child to learn another language? No.” In an earlier era such a comment might have provoked a wave of nationalist outrage that could have made a difference. This time there was no such reaction. It was a key moment.

The failure of PQ ideology on the one hand and a new openness to the role of English suggests that there are winds of change in Quebec.

Change was signalled in the 2011 federal election when the NDP swept through Quebec, decimating the Bloc Québécois. It wasn’t immediately obvious that the shift represented a durable departure from a Quebec dominated by pro-sovereignty parties both federally and provincially. The election of a PQ government the next year (albeit with just 32 per cent of the vote) suggested that the pro-sovereignty movement still had strength. One might interpret the Bloc’s recent election of the strongly nationalist Mario Beaulieu to lead the party as a reflection of the continuing strength of pro-sovereignty sentiment in Quebec. The evidence suggests otherwise. In polls conducted since the leadership election, the party has lost ground from an already weakened position, and is currently running about four percentage points below its support in 2011. The federal Liberals, the NDP and the Conservatives combined are currently capturing the support of close to 80 per cent of the Quebec electorate.

The Canadian federation has long experienced a federal-provincial dynamic where provincial politics can have a major influence on the federal scene. Unpopular provincial administrations identified with a federal party have sometimes adversely affected that party’s prospects in a subsequent election. NDP governments elected in Ontario in 1990 and British Columbia in 1991 became unpopular (in large measure because of the early nineties recession), contributing to the federal NDP’s dismal showing in the 1993 federal election. The last time the federal Liberal Party won the most votes in Quebec in a federal election, in the millennium year of 2000 (the BQ won one more seat than the Liberals), it could thank the deep unpopularity of forced municipal amalgamations carried out by the PQ government of Lucien Bouchard.

Not having a provincial counterpart is likely to help the NDP in Quebec. So far in 2014 the federal Liberals top the polls in the province, averaging 34 per cent while the NDP is not far behind at 29 per cent. However, the language composition of the NDP’s Quebec support suggests that the party would likely win the most seats in an election held today. For every election there are two Quebecs: one English-speaking and generally dominated by provincial and federal Liberals and the other French-speaking. The overwhelming Liberal support among English-speaking voters in a first-past-the-post system means that the party wins by large margins in anglophone constituencies. Because of this “wasted” Liberal vote, the NDP can finish second overall in vote percentage in Quebec but ahead in seats. Averaging September 2014 Léger and CROP polls, we find that among francophone voters the NDP led the Liberals 35 to 29 per cent, with the BQ trailing at 18.5 per cent.

To win support among francophone voters the NDP has taken some contentious positions on issues such as the appropriate threshold for approving Quebec secession in a referendum. Its 50-per-cent-plus-one position (the same as the position taken by Quebec’s provincial Liberals and identical to the threshold in the recent Scottish referendum) might have been a liability elsewhere in Canada, but the dramatically diminished threat of Quebec secession means that liability simply won’t matter in the 2015 campaign. In this way the federal NDP benefits from the election of the provincial Liberals. The federal Liberals, however, do need to hope that Premier Couillard does nothing to tarnish the Liberal brand over the next 12 months.

Do scandals matter?

The cool reception given Stephen Harper`s government in Quebec continues. However, one feature of both the Ontario and the Quebec election should give it hope. The Senate expense scandal has damaged the Harper government’s reputation, but will it contribute to political defeat in 2015? With the Mike Duffy trial scheduled to commence in April 2015, media speculation suggests that the scandal, which has faded recently, could have renewed importance on the eve of the 2015 election. However, scandals don’t always assume their expected importance in electoral contests. Witness 2014’s examples.

A serious scandal implicating Jean Charest’s previous Liberal government (in which Couillard once served as Health Minister) has dominated headlines in Quebec since 2011. The Charbonneau Commission has been investigating municipal bid-rigging and construction industry ties to organized crime. While this scandal contributed to the Charest government`s downfall in 2012, it did not prevent a Liberal victory in 2014.

In Ontario, scandals over the cost of cancelling natural gas power plants and the wiping of computer hard drives in former Premier McGuinty`s office just before he left office featured prominently in the campaign. Premier Wynne was deemed to have lost the only televised debate because of her weak responses to challenges on the scandals from Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Despite the best efforts of their opponents, in neither Ontario nor Quebec did the scandals prevent the Liberals from winning a majority. At most in Quebec, as Jean-François Lisée noted in the last issue of Inroads, after significant gains in the polls “the Liberals plateaued as a result of the integrity theme.”1 Despite the scandal-laden headlines and TV debates, what mattered to voters were debates over campaign policies they could clearly see would affect their lives. Instead of Hudak`s proposal to radically reshape government, voters preferred the Wynne government`s still relatively austere budget offering slightly slower deficit reduction, along with progressive measures such as a wage increase for home care workers, a higher minimum wage, a possible Ontario pension plan and an income tax increase for those receiving higher incomes. In Quebec what mattered more than doubts about Quebec Liberal integrity was the desire to avoid a referendum.

Scandals appeal to journalists – they do make good copy – but in Ontario and Quebec in 2013 they took a back seat to the substance of policy. Wynne recovered whatever ground she might have lost in the single TV debate of the campaign during the last week by focusing on the PC cuts – both on the campaign trail but more importantly in television ads. The themes in the Liberal ads (the party had lots of money to spend on advertising) make manifest the prospective Hudak job cuts. For example, one ad starts off, “If Tim Hudak becomes Premier what will become of Ontario? First 100,000 teachers, health care workers and fire fighters will lose their jobs.” By translating Hudak`s job cuts into specifics Wynne seized the promise, turned it around on her opponent and made voters forget about scandal.

The opposition parties

The opposition parties in Quebec do not have federal counterparts. However, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is a nationalist right-of-centre party. Its performance in the April 7 election delivered a mixed message. The CAQ lost votes even while picking up seats courtesy of the vicissitudes of first-past-the-post. However, it performed well in the Quebec City region and this has attracted the interest of the federal Conservatives. In Léger and CROP polls taken in the summer and early fall of 2014 the CAQ ranked second, giving the federal Conservatives renewed hope of picking up at least a few seats in a province where they previously had high hopes of a breakthrough.

The PCs in Ontario find themselves in an unusual position, kept from power for the fourth election in a row. Since then Tim Hudak has resigned and a leadership race has started. The first declared candidate was Christine Elliott, one of the few MPPs elected in the Greater Toronto Area. Her task is to moderate the party’s course. “Fiscal responsibility and social compassion can, and must, go together,” she declared in her opening statement, something that might have been uttered by an icon of moderate conservatism such as Bill Davis, PC Premier in the 1970s and 1980s. Elliott’s early entry may be an effort to get a head start in a party whose membership still leans to the right.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath made the mistake of alienating part of the NDP’s political base. The NDP platform appeared to be based on polls and focus groups. The party opted for measures it deemed popular without evaluating the ideas against traditional party principles or, in some cases, their practicality. It targeted (successfully to some extent) Conservative voters, but this came at a price. It cost the party at least three seats in Toronto, although gains elsewhere permitted its total vote to increase about one percentage point. At one point the divisions in the party broke into the public realm via a leaked letter from a group of dissidents, and later a critical newspaper column by longtime party stalwart Gerry Caplan. Horwath faces ongoing dissatisfaction with her leadership as internal divisions continue to rankle.

The federal NDP made considerable gains in Ontario in 2011 (seven percentage points and five constituencies), a performance they would not currently repeat. All of Canada’s political parties have considerable overlap between federal and provincial wings. Festering divisions in a branch of the party as large as Ontario are clearly not welcome to Thomas Mulcair. As in Quebec, however, dissatisfaction with a provincial Liberal government committed to spending restraint could work to his advantage.

Canadian Liberal and Conservative majorities

When the Liberals won majority governments during the Pierre Trudeau era, they were based on dominance in Ontario and Quebec. The near shutout of the Liberal Party in the 1980 election in western Canada, while it swept through Ontario and captured all but one seat in Quebec on its way to a majority, contributed to demands for Senate reform and the growth of the Reform Party. The NDP’s current strength in Quebec among the French electorate would preclude a similar Liberal Ontario-and-Quebec-based majority today.

The Brian Mulroney government had one landslide in 1984 that swept all regions of the country in a manner similar to John Diefenbaker in 1958. Mulroney’s second majority in 1988 was achieved by winning narrowly in Ontario, winning more strongly in the west and sweeping Quebec. The current Conservative majority is based on the party`s dominance across western Canada, where it captured 78 per cent of all constituencies in 2011, plus a big win in Ontario (69 per cent of the constituencies). The Conservatives lost ground in Quebec and won just a plurality of the seats in Atlantic Canada. Repeating the majority depends on another strong showing in Ontario – something that now appears highly unlikely.

In their provocative 2013 book The Big Shift, pollster Darrell Bricker and Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson suggested that Canada was undergoing a long-term shift to the right, rooted in the growing power and influence of western Canada and middle-class suburban immigrants, particularly in Ontario, who are socially and economically conservative. They argue that the 2011 Harper victory represented a breakthrough based on these factors. The election represented a shift away from what they termed “Laurentian elites” who, although ambiguously defined, appear to represent traditional federal Liberals.

In recognition of this western growth, the new House of Commons elected in 2015 will include larger representation from B.C. and Alberta. However, while those two provinces gain six and four seats respectively, Ontario and Quebec will also add 15 and three new constituencies (Ontario’s growth includes new seats in the “middle-class suburbs”). In the 2011 federal election the Conservative Party did indeed sweep the suburban belt of constituencies surrounding Toronto. However, almost all of those suburban ridings – except for the north, federal and provincial constituency boundaries are identical in Ontario – have now voted twice for the provincial Liberals. In fact, 40 constituencies that elected a member of Stephen Harper’s 2011 caucus sent a Liberal to Queen’s Park on June 12. Another seven 2011 federal Conservative ridings went NDP provincially.

If the Bloc Québécois is no longer to be a factor in federal Quebec politics, then the possibility exists for Ontario and Quebec to play a much stronger role in forming federal governments. Current polling suggests that a significant Liberal recovery is underway in both provinces, while the NDP remains strong in Quebec.

However, in a nod to avoiding a repeat of the east-west divisiveness of the 1980 election, the Justin Trudeau Liberals are cultivating western support, notably by supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, which is opposed by the NDP. Since the Chrétien era the Liberals have had strength in the urban west. If current polls reflect potential 2015 results, the party would stand to gain seats in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. In the next election the Liberals may be tempted to move right to gain ground in the west, while the NDP seeks to consolidate its gains in more social democratic Quebec.

Majority or minority?

Average national support for the federal Conservative Party in published polls this year has been 29.7 per cent. It trails the Liberal Party, which leads with average support of 35.8 per cent, while the NDP is at 23.0 per cent. I have had the ability to convert poll numbers into estimated seat outcomes for more than 20 years. Just a small shift away from the 39.2 per cent the federal Conservatives won in 2011 would mean loss of their majority. Although the Liberals have made spectacular gains since Justin Trudeau took over the leadership of the Liberals, my calculations suggest that they remain short of the support needed for a majority. Trudeau and Mulcair are new leaders, untested in an election. Prior perceptions can easily be erased in the heat of a campaign. Trudeau has celebrity status and the popularity that accompanies it, but may not in the end be seen as having Mulcair’s gravitas.

On the basis of polling over the past year, the Trudeau Liberals could expect to form a minority government after the 2015 federal election. If nothing changes Canada will have elected a House of Commons where the Liberals and NDP combined represent a majority for the first time – apart from the various Liberal majority governments – since 1972. The Conservatives could still finish first easily enough, but to win a majority in the new 338-seat House of Commons, a party must win 170 seats. Both Liberals and Conservatives remain short of this mark.

Minority governments are the product of close outcomes in a multiparty system. Canada has elected three minority parliaments since 2004 and appears likely to elect another one in 2015. In Ontario and Quebec the ongoing instability of minority government has now ended. It appears set to make a reappearance in Ottawa.

However, that depends on a campaign scheduled for next autumn. The Ontario and Quebec campaigns did not produce the expected outcomes. In both cases a single ill-advised moment on the part of the Ontario PCs and Quebec’s PQ defined the ballot question for the election, and not to their advantage. It could happen again next October.


1 Jean-François Lisée, “The Elephant is Among Us,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2014, p. 90.

2 On YouTube