RICK EGLINTON/TORONTO STAR
It’s a third term and a short leash for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.
Defying pre-election polls, pundit’s predictions and rookie rivals insisting it was time for a change, McGuinty led the Liberals to a rare “three-peat” win Thursday in the closest Ontario vote of the past quarter century.
But, pending possible recounts in some tight races, he appears to have fallen short of a majority and watched Liberal cabinet ministers and backbenchers lose their seats across much of the province.
As the Liberal tally hovered below the 54-seat threshold required for a majority in the 107-member Legislature, Grit insiders told the Toronto Star McGuinty would govern with a minority on an informal “case-by-case” basis with support from the New Democrats and, on occasion, the Progressive Conservatives.
“Dalton was clear — no deals — and with these numbers there is no need. When you’re at a threshold, it’s a mandate,” a senior Liberal insider said in Ottawa late Thursday night.
Another Grit predicted in Toronto that the lifespan of a minority administration — the first functioning one in Ontario since Tory Bill Davis from 1975 to 1981 — would be only “18 months to two years.”
Coincidentally, McGuinty, 56, is the first premier to win three straight elections since Davis in 1977.
But it is a bittersweet triumph, with Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky, Agriculture Minister Carol Mitchell, Revenue Minister Sophia Aggelonitis, and Environment Minister John Wilkinson all appeared heading for defeat with incomplete returns.
The result was a hollow victory for Tory Leader Tim Hudak, 43, who until last week had led in nearly every public-opinion poll over the past two years.
“It’s been a long campaign, a hard-fought campaign, and although the result is not the one that we hoped for, we do accept it,” Hudak told disappointed supporters in Niagara Falls.
“We don’t yet know if this will be a minority or a majority government, but it is very clear that the people of Ontario have sent a strong message that they want a change in direction,” he said, hailing the “shorter leash” voters have placed on McGuinty
The apparent minority result also makes NDP Leader Andrea Horwath the most influential Ontario New Democrat since former premier Bob Rae left office in 1995. Horwath, 48, will hold the balance of power in a minority Parliament.
McGuinty had hoped to be the first premier since Conservative Leslie Frost in 1959 to form three consecutive majority governments and the first Liberal to do so since Sir Oliver Mowat, one of the Fathers of Confederation, in the 19th century.
For the past two years, it had seemed as if the campaign would be a referendum on his leadership — especially after the 13 per cent harmonized sales tax was introduced on July 1, 2010, raising levies on hydro bills, gasoline, and numerous other goods and services.
Indeed, facing a dynamic duo of younger rivals, McGuinty had braced for an all-out assault on his record in power, including past broken promises about not raising taxes and the eHealth Ontario expenses scandal, among other transgressions.
But both Hudak and Horwath released relatively centrist electoral programs months before the vote that only promised to tinker with the HST and most other Liberal initiatives, essentially arguing it was time for a change for change’s sake.
Hudak, who succeeded predecessor John Tory as PC leader in June 2009, pressed a few hot buttons — such as vowing to force provincial prisoners to work on chain gangs and equip sex offenders with GPS bracelets so they could be tracked — but he pledged to maintain Liberal levels of spending on health care and education.
That seemed to be a concession that by and large schools, colleges, universities and hospitals have improved under the Grits, a theme McGuinty emphasized almost every day of the writ period.
Hudak’s platform, Changebook, revealed he would keep running deficits as long as the Liberals planned to, not getting the province into the black until 2017.
It was a cautious, focus-group-tested manifesto that Tory strategists pored over to ensure there would not be a reprise of the 2007 election fiasco that saw them disastrously promise to expand the funding of faith-based schools beyond just the publicly financed Catholic system.
They also feared the Liberals would successfully attack Hudak, a minister from 1999 to 2003 in the PC governments of former premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, as a Common Sense Revolutionary of that tumultuous era.
Still, the Tories appeared to have blundered by pouncing on a leaked Grit campaign promise to spend $12 million on tax credits to help 1,000 foreign-trained new Canadian professionals get jobs.
Thinking they had lucked into a “wedge issue” that could be exploited the way Harris used resentment over welfare benefits and pay equity in 1995, Hudak’s campaign spent their first week of the election talking of little else.
They launched aggressive ads claiming the program — which the Liberals belatedly christened “No Skills Left Behind” — was for “foreign workers” and that “Ontarians need not apply.”
Convinced the strategy was attracting voters in parts of Ontario hard hit by job losses, the Tories initially hammered away on it until realizing the attacks were hurting their fortunes in cities like Toronto.
At the same time, the Liberals couldn’t believe their luck. Instead of talking about soaring hydro bills or the rising tax burden that could be blamed on the governing party, Hudak was fixated on a boutique Grit promise and looking like a xenophobe for his trouble.
Horwath, for her part, exceeded all expectations, putting a fresh face on a party predecessor Howard Hampton had led to defeat in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
While her campaign got off to a slow start, she hit her stride in the Sept. 27 leaders’ debate.
Polls and pundits agreed she was the strongest performer, sounding honest and homespun, and coming across as more affable than her testy male rivals.
Yet aside from Horwath’s gaining attention for her likability on TV, the debate did not seem to change the complexion of the contest.
McGuinty returned to the campaign trail talking about the 50,000 green energy jobs his subsidies for wind and solar power would create by the end of next year and his plan to cut college and university tuition by 30 per cent for low- and middle-income students.
His tightly focused, disciplined campaign met with only one major controversy — the decision to move a Mississauga gas-fired power plant already under construction in order to save Liberal seats there and in Etobicoke.
Hudak, meanwhile, was hindered by problems related to municipalities. His candid admission that a Tory government could not continue the Liberals’ uploading of civic social service costs to the province infuriated mayors like Ottawa’s Jim Watson and Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion.
As well, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s surreptitiously taped summer musings at a barbecue with Mayor Rob Ford about a Tory “hat trick” in Ottawa, Queen’s Park and city hall at a barbecue did not help the provincial Tories.