Surprising provincial election results hold hidden clues for future

By Robert Washburn

Like a group of coroners going over a dead body, columnists enjoy analyzing the aftermath of an election. And, just like in the television shows, they search for the one obscure clue nobody else saw to unlock the mystery.

Despite what anyone would say, only those seeing inside polls might have caught a whiff of the pending upset Thursday night when Progressive Conservative Rob Milligan toppled incumbent Liberal Lou Rinaldi, especially with slightly more than 1,000 votes separating them. Milligan received 19, 260 compared to Rinaldi’s 18,575.

If that was not surprising enough, NDP Kira Mees saw a significant rise in her party’s support with 8,580 votes or 17.7 per cent of the vote compared to 13.2 per cent last time. The Green Party saw a huge drop in support for Judy Smith Torrie who got only 3.2 per cent of the vote, or 1,484 votes, compared to 10.2 per cent last time.

There are several reasons for the changes, some are obvious and other may not be.

First, the demographic shift of retirees to Northumberland is having an impact on the vote. The professionals who are leaving Toronto to come to Northumberland for their golden years bring with them new voting patterns and different expectations than in the past. These people also are buying in to the picture postcard lifestyle of Northumberland. Many don’t want big changes. They also live on fixed incomes and hate to see taxes rise. Economic development is not as important as cultural events and social activities. Healthcare easily trumps education as a focus.

Here, the Tories struck a cord when pushing the rise in hydro rates and the fear of increases in taxation. Future campaigns will need to watch how this group and its demographic profile are changing voter patterns.

Next, the fixed election date is a major factor.

While there was a sense of unfairness for governments to call elections at its pleasure, a fixed election date means campaigns have lost a spark. The energy of a sudden election call ignites enthusiasm in voters and campaign workers. Whereas, a fixed election date is so predictable, every can gear up, plot, plan and contrive every single aspect in advance. Candidates were not called on to react spontaneously or improves. Rarely did anything unexpected happen. It may be the reason nobody cared. We were so bored by the over-managed campaign; it was like watching an obscure Greek tragedy in the original tongue.

The advanced polls were another aspect. The unprecedented opportunity to vote in advance meant parties could get their core supporters to vote early. Previously, with only one day, it was a logistic challenge. No more. Instead, it will be significant to look at the advanced polls, which hit record high 10,000 votes.

If campaigns were able to get out their partisans before Election Day, then the parties would only concentrate on the remaining five per cent of undecided voters. This could be a major shift, if it becomes the practice.

The urban/rural split is also significant, showing how the governing Liberals need to get out of Queen’s Park and into the areas outside the GTA. Urban voters can easily support windmills because nobody is going to put one in their backyard. But come out to the country and it is a huge issue. There are many similar examples.

Also, the Tories have done a good job convincing farmers how isolated and ignored they are as a political group. The Landowners Associations leveraged years of frustration as government policies from two levels. So many farms are no longer family owned and have become agribusinesses. As such, the “less government” message resonates. Remember, 50 years ago, farmers supported co-ops and more socially democratic political movements. Instead, the Liberals focused on labour and unions, leaving farmers to migrate towards the right side of the political spectrum.

A victory by the local Liberals would have delivered a majority government. Northumberland was not the only riding to switch parties. But it was a tight enough race that party officials should feel the sting of guilt more than others. If it hopes to change its fortunes in the future, then there will need to be a restructuring at the local level. It is time for all parties to become more aware of the shifts taking place in the county and rebuild their organizations to meet the challenges of the future.

Those who are most readily able to make these adjustments will be in a better position in the future, regardless of historic voting patterns.

First published: Oct. 12, 2011




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