The Ontario election was a referendum on fiscal conservatism. Fiscal conservatism lost

Posted on June 14, 2014 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
June 13, 2014.   Andrew Coyne

In 2011, Tim Hudak sought to minimize his differences with Dalton McGuinty, downplaying economic conservatism in favour of a clutch of populist wedge issues. He threw away a 12-point lead and handed victory to the Liberals. People like me criticized him sharply for it. If only he’d offered people a clearer choice, we counselled — had he been more forthright, more substantive, more principled — he’d be premier today. So, in 2014, Mr. Hudak ran on the kind of staunchly conservative platform we favoured, and dropped four points.

There isn’t any point in sugar-coating it. This election was very much a referendum on fiscal conservatism, and the fiscal conservatives lost. Yes, the Conservative campaign was a mess, and yes, the Liberal leader, Kathleen Wynne, proved an effective fear-monger. But the central issue in this campaign, unambiguously, was fiscal policy — the Liberals ran on their budget, and the Tories ran on theirs, the Million Jobs Plan. Everyone agreed this election presented the voters with a clear choice, perhaps the clearest in 20 years. And they made their choice, just as clearly.

Unfair, some fiscal conservatives will say. Mr. Hudak’s policies were too “extreme” to draw any conclusions. But, in fact, his platform wasn’t especially radical, if you looked at it. Essentially he ran on the Drummond report: a broad-ranging set of recommendations from a panel chaired by the economist Don Drummond, commissioned by the Liberals under Mr. McGuinty. The $4-billion the Conservatives would have cut, out of a budget of $120-billion, would simply have put spending back on the track Mr. Drummond recommended — tough medicine, but hardly far-right.

Certainly Mr. Hudak’s policies were no more right-wing than Ms. Wynne’s were left-wing. That’s what made it such a clear choice. That, remember, is why the left and the unions were so upset with the New Demoratic Party leader, Andrea Horwath, for defeating the budget — because it was the budget of their dreams, the “most progressive budget in decades:” bigger spending, higher taxes, larger deficits, plus the most significant expansion of the social safety net in a generation, the proposed new Ontario pension plan. And so it continued throughout the campaign. Where Mr. Hudak was specific in the cuts he would make, Ms Wynne could think of none; where he would remove 100,000 employees from the public payroll — a number that appears to have been picked purely for its shock value — she pledged that no one would be laid off.

And the NDP? It ran on the Liberal budget as well. Ms Horwath offered little in the way of meaningful policy departures, presenting herself as a Liberal, minus the corruption. What option did she have? The Liberals ran so far to the left she had no room to outflank them.

To repeat, the public were presented with a clear choice: cut spending or increase it, cut taxes or raise them, borrow less or borrow more, and in every case chose the latter — by a margin of more than two to one, adding the Liberal and NDP vote together. Maybe the result would have been closer if Mr. Hudak were more likeable, or hadn’t tried to get too clever. But at best he’d have been looking at something in the high 30s. That would still leave upward of 60% of the vote in the hands of parties on the opposite side of the fiscal divide. Given the way the Tory vote is distributed, he’d most likely have had to govern with a minority — if the Conservatives were not replaced by a coalition of the other two parties.

That’s the larger problem facing fiscal conservatives. They do not have the public on their side. Their strategy, such as it is, is to hope the left-of-centre vote splits in just such a way that they can eke out a majority. Of course, parties rarely get 50% of the vote in our system, whatever their stripe. But it’s as significant to know the universe of votes that is at least potentially available to them. The real story of this election is not so much that the Liberals won, but how: by moving to the left — first by choosing Ms. Wynne as their leader, then by abandoning even the modest fiscal restraint Mr. McGuinty had latterly begun to embrace. The Liberals didn’t go after the fiscal conservative vote. They went after the non-conservative vote — because that’s where two-thirds of the votes are.

Faced with this reality, what should the parties do? In the Tories’ case: try again. Perhaps that seems paradoxical, in view of the foregoing. But just because a policy is unpopular doesn’t make it wrong. If it were, the NDP and its predecessors would not have campaigned on socialized medicine, through election loss after election loss. To go back to minimizing their differences, as many are already advising (since that worked so well before), is not only unlikely to succeed: it’s pointless. The Tories have spent several years working out what they stand for. If it’s fundamentally what you believe in, fight for it. What are you in politics for, but to change things? Why join one party, rather than another, if not to offer an alternative? Why compound electoral defeat with intellectual surrender?

The public may have rejected your policy prescriptions this time. But that doesn’t mean they always will. You’re in the persuasion business. Persuade. Even if you can’t persuade them to vote for you, you can change the terms of debate, forcing other parties to run on your policies. We had two parties running against fiscal conservatism in this election; maybe some future race will feature two parties in favour of it. Give up principles for power, and even if you win you lose. Win the contest of ideas, on the other hand, and even if you lose you win.

As for the Liberals, they should proceed with the feckless, big-spending policies they were elected on. Yes, they’re ruinous, but that’s democracy. They were given a mandate to avoid hard choices, and it’s sour grapes to pretend otherwise. To go back on that now, as others are advising them, to repeat the same old flim-flam so many governments have pulled in the past — campaigning against austerity, only to impose it once safely in power — would be a betrayal of the people who elected them. This is what Ontarians voted for, and this is what they should get.

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