The Charming Cynicism of the ‘Third Way’

The McGuinty-Sorbara Victory and the Problems for Ontario

Even though it was the first time in over seventy years that a Liberal premier had won two straight majorities in Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s victory wasn’t much of a surprise. Going into the election all the pollsters were predicting a close race and even a possible minority government. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

With a first-past-the-post electoral system, and experienced campaign managers like Greg Sorbara, Warren Kinsella, and Don Guy, the Liberals knew full well that they didn’t need anything like a majority of all Ontarians for them to win. In reality, the Liberals and their ‘War Room’ team realized full well that they only needed a minority of voters to show up on election day to form the next government. That is exactly what they got.

With a record low voter turnout of only 52 percent – down from 54 in 2003 – and the winning party only needing popular support somewhere in the neighbourhood of 41-45 percent to win an election in Ontario, the Liberals again won a ‘landslide.’ Duplicating their 2003 victory, the Liberals turned the support of 22 percent of Ontarians (1.8 million votes out of an 8.4 million electorate) into a massive majority in the provincial legislature.

Winning the vast majority of seats in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Northern Ontario, the Liberals won the support of urban, mostly middle-class voters generally contented with balanced budgets, more investment in schools, and vague promises of improving the environment. With four of Ontario’s six major economic sectors doing well – finance, construction, mining and metals, along with the small business service sector – wealth lubricated an upbeat mood among a small minority of voters and provided the base of liberal support.

It also helped that McGuinty again drew another woefully inept Conservative opponent – the aptly named John Tory, who like his 2003 predecessor Ernie Eves, showed himself just as inept at policy as at campaigning, and quickly shot his party in the foot with an education proposal – seemingly drawn from the 19th century – to extend public funding to all “faith-based schools.”

That the NDP was unable to get out of its message box also boosted the Liberals chances. Led by the charisma-challenged Howard Hampton, the NDP’s colourful but less than stirring campaign theme was “Get Orange: A Fair Deal for Working Families.” Not until the third week did Hampton show any emotion. Attacking Tory for derailing the election campaign into an education debate no one wanted, Hampton boosted the party’s popularity to a modest 17 percent on election night. But it was far too little to late.

The sad facts of the matter were that in shifting the NDP to the centre over the past three elections, through offers of tax cuts, property tax freezes, and electricity rebates, Hampton has only seen party fortunes stagnate, membership rolls decline, and the average age of supporters rise. Indeed, it now appears that the Liberals in Ontario are set to be the inheritors of the old ‘one-party/Red Tory’ dominance that has been the norm in Ontario politics. But this is a new kind of ‘Red Tory’ – more a ‘Third Way’ or ‘smiley, happy’ version of neoliberal policies seen commonly throughout Western Europe today.

Modern, Moderate ‘Third Wayism’

This modern, moderate, ‘Third Way’ version of neoliberalism is based on an attempts to build across-the-board appeal through policies peddled as ‘modern,’ ‘responsible,’ and ‘competent,’ while including neoliberal elements such as tax cuts and balanced budgets.

Similar to Tony Blair’s Labour Party attempt to construct a ‘Third Way’ in Britain, as well as others in Western Europe, the McGuinty Liberals ‘smiley, happy’ platform also embraces new ‘post-materialist’ concerns with the environment and gender equality. It also looks to uphold education and health as the traditional liberal institutions necessary for middle-classes to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, while protecting them from the risks of ageing, disease, and accident.

Then to top it off and to actually make this ‘Third Way’ politics work, the McGuinty Liberals have adopted the new politics of ‘inclusion’ by creating a new public face for Ontario. A number of Liberal cabinet ministers are openly gay. A number are women. The Liberal caucus is also by far the most ethnically diverse of any provincial government in Canada today. In direct contrast, McGuinty himself is a middle aged, white lawyer, a barely adequate public speaker, and comes across as a too-earnest uncle – well-meaning, but perhaps not the sharpest of players. Nonetheless, the combination of white and ethnic, gays and women, white-bread lawyers and hip, cosmopolitan up-and-comers, is something new to the traditional male-bastion of ‘reward your friends, punish your enemies’ provincial politics.

Another important political factor in making the ‘Third Way’ work for the Liberals is finance minister Greg Sorbara. Sorbara, a personable and charming lawyer from a family of developers in north Toronto – and also the chief campaign director – has made McGuinty electable by transforming ‘new’ liberal politics into good economic sense.

Mining companies as well as lumber and paper mills have seen tax write offs, grants, and incentives for new investment and their own energy efficient plants mean benefits. For contractors and transport companies – especially throughout Northern Ontario – the Liberals have put into place multi-million dollar highway funding. For ageing middle classes, as well as workers and their families, the Liberals are currently building new hospitals – with private financing – and new cancer and long-term care throughout Ontario.

These offer security and just as importantly new employment opportunities and public investments that support house values of a middle-class electorate. The investments in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education have done the same, and along with incremental changes to education funding formulas that have increased school budgets, the Liberals have secured the whole-hearted support of the primary and secondary school teachers – the ‘shock’ troops for the Liberal campaign in riding after riding.

By increasing programme and infrastructure back to earlier norms, from 12.9 percent of Ontario’s GDP to 14.4 percent, and carefully targeting spending at supporter, Sorbara has knit together a ‘Third-way’ agenda with older-style programmatic, ‘boosterism’ to help build the Liberals into the ‘natural party of government’ for two elections in a row. Such realities have only further cemented the public’s view that Sorbara and the McGuinty Liberals are the party that can make the tough choices. But whether Sorbara and McGuinty’s salesmanship and plans are actually good for Ontario is another matter. There are a number of ‘inconvenient truths’ facing them.

The Inconvenient Truths Facing Ontario

At the top of the list of ‘inconvenient’ problems is the fact that the province has lost 148,000 manufacturing jobs since 2004, and the unionized auto sector has lost close to 30,000 in the past two years. Auto Manufacturing Employment in Canada The same is true in forestry. An 80 billion dollar industry nationwide, and long accustomed to serious market swings, lumber and paper mills have recently seen the loss of 42,000 jobs and the downgrading of the debt and stock in all major forestry giants.

Nor do current policies for the environment appear sustainable. Ontario is one of the worst polluters in North America. But plans to close the coal-fired power plants by 2007 have already been pushed back to 2014. And to keep the lights on without producing global warming green house gases, the Liberals are preparing to build two more nuclear power reactors.

Policies to deal with Ontario cities are just as unplanned. Thanks to Mike Harris, Ontario is the only state-level jurisdiction in the advanced industrial world to make its municipalities fully responsible for social housing and social assistance, and the primary funder of transit, child care, public health, and shelter services. In less than ten years, Ontario cities have seen their deficits balloon. Toronto, at 5.2 million people is Canada’s largest urban centre (by itself larger than 6 of Canada’s smallest provinces combined) and has an annual fiscal deficit of half a billion dollars to match.

Toronto also has transit, poverty, and homelessness problems of astronomical proportions that have no provincial comparisons. But without any of the advantages of provincial royalty revenues, federal transfers, or provincial s support, there is little hope for Toronto or other now teetering Ontario municipalities.

Sorbara has promised to extend one of the subway lines north by 2010, and boost transit funding for woefully underserved cities like Toronto by 2017. The Liberals have also promised to upload some of the social assistance costs from municipalities.

But Ontario has more than 1.8 million living below the poverty line, and Toronto is now the unofficial “child poverty centre” of Canada with 345,000 estimated living in poverty – 44 percent of the total number of Canadian children living in poverty today. Poverty in Ontario, Numbers of People Below LICOToronto also has more than a quarter of its workforce in low-wage, non-standard, part-time, and temporary jobs.

For a party that proclaims, “We are all in this together,” the Liberals will face even louder opposition charges of ‘broken promises’ in 2011 if they do not address these problems in a serious and credible ways, and also challenge the Harper Conservatives to invest the federal surplus into cities and social programs.

Simply claiming – as they have done time and again throughout the past election campaign – that they ‘feel the pain of cities/people/or fill in the blank’ and that they will work to address these ‘in the near future/next year/or in the next decade,’ will not be enough. There is little reason to be optimistic.

In their recent election victory, McGuinty and the Liberals were able to turn the election campaign into a debate on education and the inadequacies of John Tory while saying little about health care, the environment or vanishing manufacturing jobs. As they showed, electoral cynicism and inequality still comprise the gold standard by which winning provincial politicians operate in Ontario. But salesmanship is a poor substitute for policies that actually improve jobs and daily life.

If the McGuinty Liberals are going to show themselves any different except in their public face from the Mike Harris and Stephen Harper’s of the world, they will have to do a good deal more than they have so far accomplished in the past four years. As 78 per cent of Ontarians showed last Wednesday – either by voting for other parties or simply not voting at all – expectations are pretty low. •

John Peters is an associated professor and research fellow at the University of Montreal’s Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work (CRIMT).