Opinion Column

Polarized politics leave room for Liberals 0

By Brian MacLeod, Sudbury Star

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. (QMI Agency Files)

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. (QMI Agency Files)

Ontario politics are moving from partisan to polarized, and the only one that’s standing aside from an ugly debate during the next election is a re-emerging Premier Dad.

And despite the polls, don’t count out Dalton McGuinty just yet.

The Liberals are sinking in popularity. A Forum Research poll puts them at 22% (a drop of more than 15 percentage points from the fall election, while the NDP is at 36% (up 13 points) and the Progressive Conservatives are at 35% (unchanged).

The polarized battle is shaping up between Tory Leader Tim Hudak’s anti-union policies and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has always had labour at its base.

Hudak set up his labour-bashing credentials when he unleashed a policy paper, which proposed removing the closed-shop laws in Ontario and allowing employees to opt out from paying union dues. Such laws are in place in lesser industrialized states in the U.S. south and midwest, most notably, Wisconsin.

When Hudak’s party lost the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection earlier this month to the NDP — a riding his party held for 22 years — we got a hint of what is to come. He blamed the loss on “union bosses,” especially teachers unions who supported the NDP.

Voters found Hudak’s unfocused policies wanting in the fall election and they don’t seem to be warming up to his fiery anti-union posture either.

In a sense, he’s doing a Mitt Romney, writing off an entire portion of the electorate in pursuit of votes from those who see unions as Ontario’s economic problem.

But Horwath, who has worked hard to present a more centrist party, risks being pushed into a more high-profile, labour-friendly stance.

Speaking to a crowd of United Steelworkers members in Sudbury on Monday, she said strong unions “are the best asset our province has.” Since small-business owners employ more than half the workers in Ontario, one might think a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and a healthy business climate would rank among the province’s better assets.

In the middle stands Dalton McGuinty.

He’s having a hard time of it. He was re-elected last year based largely on his ability to convince urban voters that he’s the best person to look after health care, education and the environment (the latter being his insistence on building wind turbines in rural Ontario, which is hostile to them).

But spending scandals and disputes with teachers unions are wearing down his appeal.

So, up pops Premier Dad this week.

He’s looking at animal-welfare regulations after reports of unhealthy conditions at Marineland in Niagara Falls.

He’s talking about bringing in legislation to encourage people to buy more locally grown food, and he’s musing about ways to make motorists pre-pay at the pumps after a tragic incident in Toronto in which a 44-year-old gas station attendant died after he tried to prevent a motorist from leaving without paying for gas.

Taken individually, many people will agree with these initiatives.

Just as they agreed with laws stopping people from smoking in cars with kids, with laws forcing schools to serve healthier foods, all-day kindergarten and outlawing pit bulls.

These are the types of actions that buttresses people’s faith in the premier to govern with compromise and moderation.

The act is wearing thin on many Ontarians, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

In the midst of a pending ugly debate over labour issues between Hudak and Horwath, Ontarians may once again see McGuinty as the tolerable alternative.

brian.macleod@sunmedia.ca

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