We've had a week now to think about the results of the Ontario elections. In newspapers and on TV you'll find pundits doing mathematical gymnastics to convince you that the party that won the fewest seats somehow ends up with the most power. The Liberals, they say, will have to appeal to the NDP to pass budgets and stay in power, which will mean the NDP is essentially calling the shots. You can hear this from a variety of political pundits, as well as see it behind the Toronto Sun's Friday morning headline, "Welcome to Hell".
I can understand how this thinking works. So far under Tim Hudak the only policy the Ontario PCs have had is disagreeing with Dalton. If the PCs continue on this path then the Liberals can't play the two opposition parties against one another, which means that the Liberals need NDP support on every vote to get anything done and to stay in power.
What is missing from this analysis, however, is that voting down the government is not, in itself, winning. Winning is winning the election after the government falls. We've seen with the federal government that when a minority is in power, Canadians have a tendency to blame the opposition parties for elections - and it seems we dislike elections a great deal. Unless the current government is defeated on a very important issue they may just end up getting a majority.
Because of this the Liberals can essentially go forward with whatever they want in the house. If Ontarians think that Hudak is always going to oppose the Liberals, then the blame for a fast election will fall on Horwath. So in the next budget the NDP may have a little bit of room to make deals, but they will be in no position to make demands. They will largely have to accept whatever the Liberals give them. Another trip to the polls in six months can't really help the NDP's position.
There are other things going against the NDP as well. Part of the NDP success in this election was a wave of sympathy after Jack Layton's death. Unfortunately the longer things go on the more people will realize that Andrea Horwath is no Jack Layton. In his final letter to Canadians, Jack Layton asked us all to embrace hope and positive thinking which is a message that many Canadian voters are starting to feel ready for after a couple of decades of small-minded partisan bickering. The Ontario NDP campaign, however, concentrated on doom and gloom messaging; the only positive thing they had to say was something about a minor tax rearrangement.
The NDP ability to control their own fate is also somewhat limited. If the federal NDP seem credible and effective then the provincial party will enjoy benefits, but if the federal NDP seem disorganized and ineffective then the provincial NDP may suffer from that. Until the federal party finds a leader there is little chance they share their successes with the provincial party, but they have plenty of opportunity to share gaffes.
Finally, Ontario seems to love putting in a government that is opposite to the government in Ottawa. With Harper in power federally, the Liberals are the natural choice for Ontario, and the result in this past election may convince some voters that vote splitting between the Liberals and the NDP is counterproductive, which would shift more votes back to the Liberals.
This lack of election prospects for the opposition is exactly the same dynamic we saw at the federal level for the last few years, and I think we can expect McGuinty to take a few pages out of Harper's playbook in terms of how he runs the government.
Scandals and disasters will always inject uncertainty into the future of politics, but at this point my prediction is that the Liberal minority will last at least three years and that until then the Liberals will run the province largely unaffected by the fact that they don't technically have control of the house. What that actually means for the province is another matter. I think it's usually a lot easier to guess at politics than it is to try to divine what parties will do when they are in power.