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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Bernie Farber - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Battleground Ontario:  Justin Trudeau holds his caucus meeting in southwestern Ontario. Stephen Harper suddenly makes nice with Kathleen Wynne.

And Thomas Mulcair spends a lot of stump time in this province. It's no co-incidence: vote rich Ontario holds the key to who wins and who loses this year's federal election.


Bernie Farber:

The battle is on, and truth be told it’s anyone’s game to lose. Ontario is a vote rich area that has been traditionally ignored by the Tories, that is until an election looms. Then, like the bully who tries to make nice, the charm and promises get turned on.

Harper bet his fortune on oil as the economy booster, rolled the dice, and lost. Now he is scrambling.

With the recent Bank of Canada rate cut Canadians are beginning to understand how the economy has been mishandled. Harper needs Ontario and needs it badly but all signs are that the ridings won in last election here are up for grabs.


John Capobianco:

"Bully"? "Rolled the dice and lost"? Bernie, really? Strong and decisive leadership is what we have seen with this Prime Minister— and thank goodness! Given the challenges this country has faced with the stalled economy and the international (and local) terrorists' threats, it is exactly what we needed and what we got to see ourselves through this, and to continue to see it through this next stage.

I would shudder to think what would have happened if we didn't have that kind of leadership. In fact many Canadians are seeing this, which has resulted in a positive upward trend for the PM in recent polls. This has been more evident in vote-rich Ontario, where the PM numbers have been steadily increasing.

Bernie, you are partially right that Ontario will be the battleground — but NDP leader Thomas Mulcair needs to ensure he keeps his Quebec seats safe or he’ll see himself in third place.


Marit Stiles:

Well, this is sounding a lot like — big surprise — a Tory campaign-message box from John. Whether or not there's a spring election, we're definitely in pre-election mode starting now. And the last few weeks have made that even more apparent. The big downside of set election dates is months and months of campaigning — just look to the US to see what I mean.

There's no doubt that Ontario, as always, will be a key battleground for all three major political parties. Take Ontario for granted at your own risk, folks: it's vote-rich territory.

Remember, with the new riding distribution Harper only needs to lose 18 ridings to lose his majority. And his brand has suffered in Ontario. While the Liberals had a strong showing in the last provincial election, the shine is wearing off and they are set to unveil major cuts, sell offs and face labour strife, and that's not going to help their federal cousins. Mulcair is focused on maintaining the seats the NDP picked up last time and growing.

The NDP sees the potential for major gains in south-western Ontario where they are pushing specific policies to boost manufacturing — Harper has let this sector down and Trudeau has given up on it. Voters in that region will be viewing the recent announcements out there by Harper with a pretty cynical eye, I expect.


Bernie Farber:

John, unlike the terrorist attacks in France clearly motivated by ISIS-type extremists, we have not yet seen clear links to the brutal murders here. Yet the PM has used Jihadist talk to try and strip us of even more rights, despite the fact that we have all the anti-terrorist legislation we need. Not sure I call that leadership or government by fright.

Marit and I agree to a point. We differ on the extent of influence the Ontario Liberals might play in a federal election. I believe the Premier remains well liked and there seem little to deny that other than the usual ups and downs of government.

And yes, there are Ontario federal ridings up for grabs. Once thought of as an easy win for Thornhill, Peter Kent, the Tory MP, is tired and new fresh faces are vying for the Liberal nomination. Galit Solomon, a young Canadian Jew who is well known from her CITY-TV days, will be a formidable opponent.

Others like Michael Levitt in York Centre, Rob Oliphant in Don Mills, and Omar Alghabra in Mississauga are all running again, which shows the richness of the Liberal party.

It will be tight and no one should take anything for granted.


John Capobianco:

Marit brings up an interesting point on fixed elections and whether it forces longer campaign periods, or whether having the governing party determine when to go is more democratic — an interesting topic for another day.

However, the point Marit makes about the campaign beginning now is true. One only has to look and listen to Mulcair's economic announcement Tuesday to confirm this. Mr. Mulcair actually talked about lowering taxes and helping the manufacturing industry.

Yes, you all heard correctly — the Leader of the NDP is speaking about corporate incentives and lower business taxes, and this on the heels of a major internal structural over-haul. Is Mr. Mulcair worried about Mr. Trudeau taking some of his seats? He should be.

But we have not seen or heard anything substantive from the Liberals despite many opportunities. The line Mr. Trudeau keeps using, that we need to wait until the election, is nonsense: if Mr. Trudeau thinks (albeit incorrectly) that the PM has it wrong in the direction he is taking the country, then he needs to explain what he would do differently.

The economy and our safety are of concern to Canadians from coast to coast to coast. This election period will be about the economy and our safety among other issues, but Canadians will judge our leaders primarily on how they will handle these two issues. And our leaders will undoubtedly be ensuring that their respective messages resonant across Canada, but especially here in Ontario.

Bernie, I will give you this: you are right; no one should take anything for granted.


Marit Stiles:  

I think the ground is shifting and changing and the major focus for Canadians — and Ontarians included — will be the economy, most definitely.

But while usually it's true that the Conservatives play well on the “managing the economy” message, the last few years have shown a different side — a government that's indecisive, apprehensive, losing touch.

Just look at the decision to postpone the federal budget. Economic uncertainty, the price of oil tanking (pardon the pun) and what does your government do? Hide away, avoid, postpone.

Canadians are looking for strong ideas and strong leadership. Mulcair is gambling that releasing his major policy planks in advance of the election will solidify his base and stake out territory as “the guy with a plan and a vision," contrasting with Trudeau who is light on policy and leadership, and a Harper government that's lost its way.

Muclair's plan addresses the two-year Ontario gap in childcare policy — the gap between parental leave and full day kindergarten. Support for small business will play well in areas where the NDP is looking to pick up seats, like Brampton and Mississauga, and a strong focus on manufacturing will help shore up support and swing votes in the southwest.

There's no question it's “Game On” in Ontario, and there are going to be a lot of tight races and nervous strategists, watching to see how all this plays out in coming months. 

About The Salon

John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; Bernie Farber is a former Ontario Liberal candidate and one of Canada's leading human rights experts.
Posted date : January 26, 2015

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