After 8 years in office, the Ontario Tories were finally thrown out on October 2, 2003. They were replaced by a Liberal majority government that won 72 seats to the Tories’s 24. The social democratic NDP, after a strong campaign, won 7 seats. As is virtually always the case in North America, the electoral outcome was a poor reflection of the popular vote, which would have given the Tories and the NDP more seats. The Liberals took 47%, the Tories 33%, and the NDP 16%.
The electoral system probably distorted the outcome in another way: the electorate voted against the Tories more than for the Liberals. As a result, there were probably many voters with social-democratic ideals who let their fear of another Tory term outweigh their desire to vote NDP. The NDP’s share of the popular vote is an underestimate of the popularity of their policies, and would probably have been far higher in a fair electoral system.
While the Tories themselves are down, they are far from finished as a political force. After a disgraceful campaign that advertised their mean-spiritedness, arrogance, and incompetence, they still won 33% of the popular vote. This hard core of support for regressive and hateful policies is another legacy of the Tories’ revolution.
The real winner of the election, however, was abstention. The Toronto Star reports that 4 million of Ontario’s 7.9 million voters cast a ballot. This means the Liberals took about 1.9 million, the Tories about 1.3 million, and the NDP about 640 000 votes, while the winner – abstention — beat the Liberals roundly with about 3.9 million votes. In one way, this is encouraging to radicals: no doubt voters stayed at home on election night for various reasons, but it is unlikely that they stayed at home because they felt that none of the candidates were far enough on the political right to be worth voting for.
One explanation for voter apathy was given by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in their post election note. Those who didn’t vote, in OCAP’s words, “are poor and working people who make sacrifices and work hard to provide for their families. They are capable of acting very vigorously when they see something as meaningful and important. The ‘electoral process’, however, leaves them cold. They see no reason to support a candidate because, as far as they are concerned, ‘none of the above’ will deal with the injustices that beset their lives. Beneath the passive indignation that underlies this rejection of elections is a huge sense of grievance and anger.”
Creating a widespread sense among poor and working people that voting won’t change things has historically been a very deliberate and useful strategy deployed by elites and their political parties. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward discuss this in their book, ‘Why Americans Don’t Vote’. The US political system is based on very high levels of voter abstention by, especially, poor and working people. The idea is to create a ‘democracy’ devoid of genuine options, where the real decisions have been made long before voters cast their ballots. Ontario’s abstention rate is now approaching the rate in US presidential elections.
Abstention is not the only feature of the US political system that the Tories have helped to establish in Ontario. If the intention of a revolution is to make irreversible changes, the Tories have indeed made a revolution here. As much as the Liberals present themselves as wanting to rebuild the province, to reverse what the Tories have done would take an activist regime with massive popular support. That is not what the Liberals are.
As part of the Tory revolution, health care, utilities, education were defunded, with new user fees introduced, to set them firmly on track to privatization. Taxes were cut to create a revenue crisis that will justify further cuts and privatizations in public services. Services were downloaded from the provincial to the municipal level with the same intention. Standardized testing was introduced pervasively through the education system and a year of high school removed, both of which undermined the quality of education.
Anti-union legislation was introduced, environmental regulations relaxed, tenants’ rights undermined, social assistance was cut. There was an escalation in repression and a new willingness to use police to attack and repress protest violently. The Liberals have no intention of reversing any of this. At best, they will continue on this path at a slower and less arrogant pace than the Tories had.
McGuinty has already said he rejects what he calls ‘the politics of division.’ He was talking about the Tory practice of demonizing and mobilizing against vulnerable groups, a tactic which a disappointingly large segment of Ontario’s population fell for over and over again. But in that statement McGuinty has a ready excuse for not reversing any of the damage the Tories have wrought, since to do so would require a ‘confrontation’ with the elites who have benefited from the Tory policies.
In recent decades, the only regimes that have managed to bring about genuine social gains have been regimes that were unafraid of popular mobilization and organization, recognizing that these things alone had even a chance of standing against the power of multinational corporations and their mobile capital.
The Worker’s Party governments in parts of Brazil, the Left formations in West Bengal and Kerala in India, the Chavez regime in Venezuela, when they have succeeded (and they have not always succeeded), succeeded because they were pushed, and protected, by strong popular movements. The NDP in Ontario, in power before the Tories, did not fight in this way. The Liberals, with their endorsements from the taxpayers’ federations and the business community, certainly will not. Instead, when people demand their rights, the Liberals are likely to call them ‘divisive’ and repress them using many of the tools prepared for them by the Tories.
So, while it is not out of court to feel some relief that the pace of the pounding Ontarians will be taking is about to slow down somewhat, it’s critical to understand, again in OCAP’s words, “the only change that will occur in Ontario is that which we are prepared to fight for and it is the new Liberal Government that we now must target.”
Justin Podur is a writer, activist, and frequent contributor to rabble.ca based in Toronto.