Politics of Ontario

Politics of Ontario

The Province of Ontario is governed by a unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, which operates in the Westminster system of government. The political party that wins the largest number of seats in the legislature normally forms the government, and the party's leader becomes premier of the province, i.e., the head of the government.

Ontario's primary political parties are the centre-right Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (PC Party), the centre-left Ontario Liberal Party and the social democratic Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP). The Ontario Green Party has seen its support grow over the years - to 8.1% of the vote in 2007 - but has yet to win any seats in the Legislature.


The Big Blue Machine, 1943-1985

The Progressive Conservative Party dominated Ontario's political system from 1943 to 1985 and earned the nickname of the Big Blue Machine. During this period the party was led by Red Tory premiers: George Drew, Leslie Frost, John Robarts and Bill Davis. These governments were responsible for some of the province's most progressive social legislation (including the Ontario Code of Human Rights), the creation of most of Ontario's welfare state and social programs, the creation of many Crown Corporations, and strong economic growth. Though the Conservatives were reduced to a minority government in 1975 and 1977, they stayed in power as they moved to the left of the rural-based Liberals. In addition, the Liberal and NDP opposition parties had been unwilling to cooperate. The Conservatives' were returned with a majority government in 1981.

However, in 1985, the party came back to the right, electing Frank Miller as leader at a leadership convention, following the retirement of popular longtime Red Tory Premier Bill Davis. This shift in policy did not help the party's fortunes, nor did Davis' announcement to extend full funding for Catholic schools, the latter which alienated the Conservatives' rural supporters. After 42 years of governing Ontario, the 1985 election reduced the Tories to a minority in the Legislature, with only four seats more than the opposition Liberals. The Tories won fewer votes overall than the Liberals. Miller attempted to forge an alliance with the NDP, as Bill Davis did during his minority terms (1975–1981), but they were unable to come to an agreement. The Liberals of David Peterson and the New Democrats of Bob Rae signed an accord (not a formal coalition), ousting Frank Miller, and ending one of the longest political dynasties in Canadian history.

Conservatives get booted, 1985-1995

Peterson was able to re-energize his party and lead them back into office. The Liberal-NDP coalition of 1985-1987 worked very well with David Peterson at the helm as Premier. In exchange for supporting certain Liberal policies and not defeating Peterson's government in the Legislature, the Liberals agreed to pass certain NDP policies to which Miller had been unwilling to agree.

In the 1987 election, Peterson's Liberals won a substantial majority in the Legislature. Peterson's record in office was a mixed one. During his five years in power, Ontario recorded some of its best economic times; however towards the end of his tenure government spending increased. Although his government predicted a surplus, the Liberals plunged the Government of Ontario into a $3 billion deficit by 1990.[citation needed]

The Social Contract

The Liberals paid dearly by calling a snap election three years into their mandate in 1990. Before Peterson called the election, his government stood at a 54% approval rating in the polls. However, the early election call turned out to be his undoing as the public interpreted it as arrogance. Several scandals also broke out after the election call and some suspected the Liberals of calling an election just to dodge the upcoming recession. In the most surprising election results in Ontario's history, the NDP was able to win a majority government, however with only 37% of the vote. This government was Ontario's second social democratic government (after the United Farmer's government of Ernest Drury 1919-1923), and its track record would keep the NDP out of serious contention for power in Ontario until the present.

The NDP took power in the midst of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Though they campaigned predominantly on the promise of a public auto insurance system, they backtracked on this policy, causing a split between Premier Rae and his more left-wing ministers. Initially, they increased spending in the public sector to stimulate employment and productivity. However, due to the unforeseen severity of the recession, it angered the business community while not doing enough to provide for public relief.

Faced with a skyrocketing deficit, the New Democrats introduced cutbacks to social spending as well as the Social Contract, which forced public-sector workers to take unpaid "holidays" or "Rae Days" every year. They also introduced wage freezes.[citation needed] The Social Contract led to most of the labour movement, especially longtime NDP ally Buzz Hargrove and the CAW (Canadian Auto Worker's Union), along with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and other public sector unions turning its backs on Bob Rae, many of their members vowing to bring his government down. Rae also introduced unpopular revenue-raising taxes and operations that hurt his election prospects. Thousands of party members resigned from the NDP and it became evident that the party was headed for a defeat in the 1995 election.

By 1995, Ontario's unemployment rate was skyrocketing and the deficit was growing bigger, leaving most people convinced that the government of Bob Rae had become ineffective. Commentators predicted an easy win for Lyn McLeod's Liberals, but the resurgent Progressive Conservative Party of Mike Harris, which had been reduced to third-party status since the 1987 election, made a comeback and won a slim majority. Macleod alienated voters by flip-flopping on campaign issues such as civil unions for same-sex couples. Towards the end of the campaign, the Liberals attempted to copy many Tory policies. Mike Harris, on the other hand campaigned on a controversial, but straightforward agenda known as the Common Sense Revolution, promising to solve Ontario's economic woes and problems with lower taxation, smaller government and pro-business policies to create jobs. He also campaigned as a populist, which gave him the support of several working-class ridings that normally voted NDP. The 1995 election gave the PC Party a large majority, bringing the Tories back into power, however not under their traditional centrist or Red Tory agenda.

The "Common Sense Revolution", 1995-2003

The new conservative government of Mike Harris implemented a programme of cuts to social spending and taxes (the "Common Sense Revolution") that exploded the budget[citation needed] and lowered taxes for most Ontarians[citation needed] and especially businesses. However, it also drew controversy for "downloading" or transferring the cost of programs and responsibilities to municipalities, without supplying finances to do so.

Teachers' Strike

In 1997, the teachers' union protested with a province-wide two week strike against the Harris government's education initiatives. It was the largest teachers' strike in North American history. [1][2][3] The teachers had a current contract so the government determined that the strike was illegal.[4] 126,000 teachers went on strike which affected 2.1 million students in the province. The strike was over the contentious issue of who holds the power to set education policy in the province. Bill 160 put control of the education system in the hands of the provincial government. It eliminated the ability of school boards and teachers' unions to set classroom and teaching conditions through collective bargaining. The bill also allowed the government to regulate class sizes, education property tax rates, teachers preparations time, the amount of time teachers and student spend in class and the use of non-certified instructors.[5]

That year, the Harris government also amalgamated Metro Toronto and its six cities into the new "Megacity" of Toronto despite their opposition.

Mike Harris was re-elected with a majority, despite a loss of 23 seats in the 1999 election, defeating Dalton McGuinty's Liberals, which gained 5 seats (27 seats were eliminated from legislature from the 1995 election). Harris' victory was largely due to a strong campaign by the NDP, as McGuinty's Liberals were able to gain only 8.8% of the popular vote to finish at 39.9% vs. the Tory 45.1%. In addition, the emergence of the Canadian economy from the recession led to many jobs in Ontario since the time Harris had taken office, and Harris' record on tax and deficit reduction all were positive features to Harris campaign. Negative campaigning by the Tories, which featured ads claiming that McGuinty was "not up to the job" also helped Harris's re-election bid.

Afterwards, the government's critics alleged that the government's cuts to the Ministry of the Environment and privatization of water-testing laboratories led to the lack of oversight that resulted in contaminated water at Walkerton. Harris first balanced budget was also revealed to have occurred because of the sale of the 407 highway tolls. Harris stepped down in 2002 and was replaced by Ernie Eves following a leadership election. Eves's government was chiefly notable for stopping Harris's unpopular plan to privatize the public electricity utility, Ontario Power Generation (formerly Ontario Hydro), but not before some parts of the utility had been sold to private interests such as Bruce Power.

The Liberals return to power

In the October 2003 election, Dalton McGuinty led the Liberals to victory against Ernie Eves and his controversy-plagued Tories, coming in with a solid majority. McGuinty's major promises revolved around increasing health care funding, unraveling Mike Harris's education reforms, and not raising taxes.

Shortly after the election, however, the former provincial auditor undertook a study that revealed that the Harris-Eves Tories had hidden a deficit of at least $5.6 billion. Minister of Finance Greg Sorbara released a budget introducing tax increases on commodities and businesses, the introduction of a new income tax called the "Ontario Health Premium" for all but low-income Ontarians, the de-listing of health-care services from Ontario Health Insurance Plan. The budget, along with the failure to prevent construction on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine after his election made the McGuinty government unpopular during its first few months. During his second month in office, McGuinty had an approval rating of only 8%, a record low. Somewhat surprisingly, even though the new Liberal government were viewed to have broken some of their promises, on December 14, 2003, 60% of Ontarians in an Ipsos-Reid Poll (on behalf of Globe and Mail/CFTO/CFRB) said they were better off governed by the Liberals now than the Conservatives under Ernie Eves.

However, things improved after his first year in office for the public opinion of the Liberals. The Ontario government was able to negotiate a national health accord with the federal government and the other provinces. Free immunizations against chicken pox and meningitis were added to the list of OHIP-covered immunizations for children, McGuinty announced plans for the creation of the "Green Belt" in the Greater Toronto Area to help control urban sprawl, and plans for the creation of a "Citizen's Assembly" to research electoral reform were also announced. The Tories on the other hand took a shift back to the centre and elected John Tory, a former aide of Bill Davis, to lead the party. John Tory stated he opposed the privatization that was advocated by Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, and supported the elimination of health premiums.

The McGuinty government also brought forward a number of regulatory initiatives including legislation to allow patrons to bring their own wine to restaurants, banning junk food in public schools, restricting smoking in public places, especially where minors are present, and requiring students to stay in school until age 18. The government also enacted changes to the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005. Following a series of high-profile maulings, the government also moved to ban Pit Bulls; a move which has generated mixed support.

In the summer of 2003, an Court of Appeal for Ontario rulings resulted in Ontario becoming the first of Canada's provinces and territories to legalize same-sex marriage. (See Same-sex marriage in Ontario.) In response to the court decision, the McGuinty Liberals updated the province's legislation relating to married couples to include same-sex couples.

In 2007 it was announced that the Ontario Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform had recommended that Ontario switch to a new electoral system known as Mixed Member Proportional Representation. As a result the Government of Ontario set the date for a referendum on the issue to be October 10, 2007, which is also the date set for the provincial election. The Government also set a "super majority" requirement that requires the support of at least 60% of voters and majority support in 60%[6] of all Ontario ridings for the proposal to be adopted. The MMP system was rejected by Ontario voters.

Overview of Ontario federal politics

Map of Southern Ontario with the ridings shaded based on how they voted in the 2006 federal election.

In general, Ontario is a mixed bag in terms of political trends, despite the fact that the federal Liberals dominated the province from 1993 to 2004 against a "divided right" between the centrist Progressive Conservative Party and strongly conservative Canadian Alliance. However, the merger of these two right-wing parties into the new, right wing Conservative Party of Canada in 2003 has reduced this Liberal dominance.

  • The Greater Toronto Area tends to be very liberal today. But interestingly enough, the surrounding region "905 belt" was solidly Progressive Conservative on the provincial level during the 1995 and 1999 elections, and of course historically supported the Tories during the more liberal Red Tory era. It is now the stronghold for the Ontario and federal Liberals, except for a few downtown districts where the NDP is strong. Conservative support is limited to the outer suburbs, where the Tories hold a few seats.
  • Southwestern Ontario is similar to the adjacent US Midwest, with the urban areas generally leaning left (especially Windsor, which is a union bastion and thus an NDP stronghold), and the rural areas being far more conservative. However, they have traditionally not been as conservative as rural parts of surrounding regions of Ontario and neighbouring American states, primarily due to the industrial nature of the region. This area has historically been a stronghold for the Liberal Party.
  • Central and Eastern Ontario are clearly the most conservative areas in Ontario. The exceptions are in central Ottawa and the city of Kingston, where activist and labour movements are strong; however, most of the region tends to vote solidly for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party on the provincial level and for the Conservative Party of Canada on the federal level.
  • Most of Northern Ontario is a hotbed for Liberal and NDP support. The southern border areas are more conservative than the northern areas, however, both fiscally and socially. This is most notable in the Parry Sound and Muskoka, Nipissing Districts.

See also

Can-vote-stub.svg Canadian politics portal


External links

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