On October 6, 2011, the Ontario Liberal Party won a third consecutive mandate from the people of Ontario with 53 of the 107 seats to form the first minority government in Ontario in over 25 years. The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PC) won 37 seats and the New Democratic Party (NDP) won 17 seats. At the dissolution of the Ontario Legislature, the governing Liberals held 70 seats (two seats were vacant), the PC’s 25 and the NDP 10. This then represents a significant loss for the Liberals while the opposition parties under their new leaders made substantial gains.

This bulletin provides an overview of the election results and how a minority government will affect the policy process and policy agenda of the new government.

VOTER TURN OUT

The Ontario election is unique in another key respect: with only 49% of the eligible voting population casting a ballot, this represents the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history. In 2007 the voter turn was 52.1%, and at that time, the record for the lowest number of ballots cast. The largest percentage of eligible voters in any riding in 2011 was 60% (Huron-Grey) with the lowest at 37% (Mississauga Brampton South). This result may be due to so-called voter fatigue with recent federal and municipal elections, or campaign communication strategies failing to connect with voters, or voter preoccupation with issues not debated during the campaign.

POLLING AND THE LEADERS DEBATE

Some public opinion polling done in the spring of 2011 showed that the PCs had a substantial lead over the governing liberals in terms of overall support. Other polls conducted at the same time (May 2011) showed decided voters of both of the major parties tied at 39% with voters split on whether or not the liberals deserve re-election. One poll from August 2011 showed significant improvement in how Dalton McGuinty was being perceived as Premier from the same poll done in August 2010.

During the writ period of the election campaign, various media released polling on decided voter preferences with the majority of those polls showing a very close race between the liberals and PC’s. As the campaigns rolled out various elements of their respective platform commitments, their were minor fluctuations between the liberals and the PC’s. However, the leaders debate lead to a significant increase in the favourable views of the NDP leader Andrea Horwath which in part explains her increased popularity and the gaining of seats. The same was not true of Tim Hudak the leader of the PC Party (Ipos Reid, Tuesday September 27, 2011) that showed he did not make a significant impression on voters.

LIBERAL CABINET MINISTER LOST SEATS

The governing liberal party lost a number of key ministers largely in rural ridings. These include:

  • Leona Dumbrowky, former Minister of Education (Prince Edward Hasting) 
  • John Wilkinson, former Minister of Environment (Perth Wellington) 
  • Carol Michell, former Minister of Agriculture (Huron Bruce) 
  • Sophia Aggelonitis, former Minister of Revenue (Hamilton Mountain).

The first three of these former Minister’s lost their seats to PC candidates where the issue of approvals for large wind energy projects dominated local politics. Combined with organizational resources from various stakeholder groups critical of the liberal energy policy framework, the PCs mounted a significant campaign to target these ridings.

MINORITY GOVERNMENT: DECISION MAKING

In this minority government, Dalton McGuinity will continue as Premier so long as he maintains “confidence of the House”, that is, has the support of the majority of MPP’s. This means the Premier will have to work with members of the other parties to find common ground on key legislative and budgetary issues. The first and key opportunity for the Premier to show his support of the House will occur once the government introduces its Speech from the Throne later in the fall. If the Premier fails to obtain support for his Thorne Speech, that is, a majority of MPPs vote against it, then he will lose confidence of the Legislature and be forced to ask the Governor General to either dissolve the legislature and call another election or ask the opposition parties to form a government.

In this post election series of media interviews, Premier McGuinty ruled out establishing a formal “coalition” government, where members of other parties form cabinet, or an “accord” government, similar to the once struck between the Liberals and NDP in 1985 that established shared policy commitments and principles for governing. Instead, McGuinty has indicated that he may attempt to entice members of the opposition to join the liberals thus giving him the majority of seats in the Legislature. The other alternative being considered by McGuinty is to negotiate legislative issues with the opposition parties on an issue by issue basis to maintain confidence of the House.

The decision making in a minority government will be different in various ways as well. First, backbench MPP’s from all parties will become more influential over government decision making. For the liberals this means that MPPs not part of cabinet will be in a stronger position to influence the direction of legislation since each of their votes is now required to pass that legislation. With individual MPPs becoming more critical for each vote, the House Leader’s office becomes more important as well in terms of setting the legislative agenda and ensuring MPPs are available (and willing) to vote with the Premier. This also suggests that keeping the liberal caucus engaged and supportive of the government’s agenda will become a full time preoccupation for the Premier and his House Leader.

Also if the Premier negotiates on an issue by issue basis, he will need support from the PCs and NDP and this gives each MPP influence over policy matters, legislative reforms, and other critical government initiatives. This also means that all party Standing Committee’s of the Legislature will become more crucial forums for developing legislation.

With individual liberal MPPs and opposition members becoming more important in government decision making, this implies that the central agencies of government lose some degree of power. The Premier’s office and Cabinet office will lose the degree of influence they have over setting the policy and legislative agenda for the government. In essence, a minority government becomes more focused on the political level of decision making, given the requirement to continuously secure votes for each initiatives in the Legislature.

CABINET DESIGN

The Premier announced that he is likely to introduce a smaller cabinet over the next few weeks. This will include experience Minister’s and some promotions for those MPP’s that performed well as Parliamentary Assistants. The Premier has indicated, for example, that Hon. Dwight Duncan will remain as the Minister of Finance. In addition, a smaller cabinet could mean combining various portfolio’s into larger ministries.

THE POLICY AGENDA

At this stage of transition to the new minority liberal government, it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty what the specific policy agenda will be. But we expect that the government will take additional measures to sustain Ontario’s economic recovery and focus on job creation. The fall’s Speech from the Throne that sets the overall agenda will be carefully negotiated with the opposition to avoid bring down the government. In addition, the Minster of Finance will deliver his fall Economic Statement by the end of November as required by law. That being said, the key policy areas to watch closely include:

 The Economic health of the province: this is the key issue that is top of mind with Ontarians as measured by opinion polls during the election campaign. Job creation and managing the deficit will be key items to watch. The government will also complete the service delivery review being conducted by former TD economist Don Drumond that may include the selling of non-core government assets (Hydro One, LCBO).

Electricity and Green Energy Act reform: The liberals renewable energy policies came under serious attack during the campaign by the PCs and resulted in the loss of key seats of liberal cabinet ministers to local PC candidates. This may require some policy changes such as removing the HST from home electricity bills, the launch of a Feed In Tariff program review, and the policy around citing of new gas fired po wer projects.

Health Care cost containment: Maintaining and expanding The Health Care Accord with the federal government became a key policy issue for the liberals during the campaign and will likely form the basis of how the government approaches the cost containment issues confronting Ontario’s raising health care costs.

Infrastructure and Urban Issues: infrastructure renewal was a key concern of all the parties in the election campaign. We expect this minority government to make it a priority in water/waste water and mass transportation. On the urban policy front we expect the liberals to continue the uploading of municipal services as a way of keeping their electoral base managed.

Post Secondary Education Reform: again with all the parties sharing some concerns over accessibility for students to post secondary education as well as apprentice training and the creation of additional spaces for students, we expect post secondary education to be a focus of the government going forward. Specifically, the Liberals will move quickly to implement their campaign promise to reduce university tuition fee’s by 30% for eligible students.

In conclusion, it is very unlikely that Ontarians will face an election anytime soon and that the governing liberals will work cooperatively with the other parties in managing the transition to a minority government.