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Steeltown smackdown hurts McGuinty and Martin

Monday, May 24, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

Having spent a rainy Sunday afternoon in April knocking on doors in Hamilton East (we New Democrats like to help each other out), I wasn’t surprised to see Andrea Horwath win the provincial by-election held there on May 13. What I did not expect – indeed, no one seemed to expect – was the sheer magnitude of the NDP victory.

With 63.6% of the vote, the scope of Horwath’s victory surpassed the level of success achieved by the late Dominic Agostino (whose death sparked the by-election) over three elections. Her margin of victory also exceeded the percentage earned the three party leaders in their own ridings in the 2003 general election. Indeed, only two of Horwath’s fellow MPPs were elected with a higher percentage of the vote. An equally important number arising out of Horwath’s victory is eight. That’s the number of seats that the NDP now has at Queen’s Park, and enough to qualify for official party status.

The origins of the stunning by-election result began on October 2, when Ontario voters “chose change” – or at least thought they were choosing change. The thing is, people who vote for change sometimes expect to see it. Instead, Dalton McGuinty has broken so many promises that it’s hard to even keep track anymore. Voters in Hamilton East had the opportunity (one that many voters in the rest of the province would have loved to have) to send a clear message that they were disappointed with the Liberals.

By his churlish denial of party status to the NDP, McGuinty also guaranteed that the first by-election held during the term of his government would be about the need to increase the NDP’s numbers at Queen’s Park. The ballot question in Hamilton East was “Do you want an effective opposition to hold the Liberals accountable, or do you want to elect another Liberal backbencher?” Voters clearly wanted the former.

The third ingredient in the Liberal defeat was Paul Martin’s vindictive decision to have Tony Valeri (one of his staunchest supporters in caucus) challenge Sheila Copps for the federal Liberal nomination in Hamilton East, instead of running in the neighbouring riding, where he lives. While Martin blathered on about the need to let such decisions be made locally, no one really believed that he wasn’t using his power to crush the only person with the audacity to challenge his coronation as Liberal leader. It was also hard to buy the “local democracy” excuse after Martin started using his power as leader to appoint (or anoint) candidates in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Brampton and Winnipeg.

Liberal supporters in Hamilton East who were not already sufficiently alienated by the actions of Paul Martin had reason to get angry over the cavalier manner in which Dalton McGuinty bypassed the democratic process. Perhaps reasoning that name recognition was enough to get him elected after the death of his father (Dalton McGuinty Sr.), McGuinty summarily appointed Agostino’s bother to run. Local city councillors who were busy gathering support for the nomination were pushed aside. Eventually, one of them went as far as endorsing Horwath, his popular fellow councillor. While Ralph Agostino did his best, he was clearly out of his element in debating Horwath, and had little to run on other than “continuing my brother’s work”.

McGuinty also waited just three weeks after Agostino’s death to call the by-election, hoping to catch other parties off guard. Not only was the NDP able to get organized much quicker than he expected, but voters didn’t exactly appreciate the fact that he was trying to catch the other parties off guard. His excuse (not wanting to leave the riding without representation) hardly washes if one considers the fact that McGuinty’s federal cousins will have left Ottawa Centre unrepresented for over a year, calling the by-election there for November 29.

The real reason for the hasty by-election call was that the Liberals knew that they had more bad news to deliver, and wanted to get the by-election out of the way before they brought down their first budget. While this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it left voters to speculate about what was awaiting them when the budget was announced. Some of that speculation – though not all of it – was surely worse than anything that the Liberals were really planning to put forth.

None of this bodes well for McGuinty, or for Liberals at the federal level. The message from the results is that voters dislike arrogance, broken promises and cynical attempts to manipulate their emotions. They like quality candidates who will offer effective, progressive representation for their communities. Based on this, watch for the NDP to carry at least three of the five Hamilton seats in the coming federal election. And, watch for the federal NDP to do much better than anyone expects throughout the province. They may not win 63.6% in every riding, but it now seems clear that federal NDP leader Jack Layton is going to have plenty of Ontario colleagues in the House of Commons.

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