Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ontario election: conflicting polls, Hudak's math & Horwath's bad day

The Ontario election continues to confound observers. Long-serving governments should typically find it harder each time they go to the polls to get re-elected. Scandal-plagued Liberal governments led for the first time by women who served in the cabinet of their discredited predecessors before becoming premier would, one would think, be doomed: just ask Christie Clark. Oh wait.

Politics is a tricky and complicated game. Just when you think you have it figured out something wholly unexpected arises. So it is in Ontario 2014. With conflicting polling messages and results, the way forward this time seems especially opaque.

Here is a table comparing polling done since May 6 online with polls conducted using telephone IVR (interactive voice response, essentially a talking computer).

Translated into seats it is the difference between a potential Liberal majority and a PC minority. And there is still a long way to go.

Hudak's Math
Jim Stanford, economist with the union Unifor, as well as the Liberal Finance Minister Charles Sousa, have been crunching the numbers on Tim Hudak's 'million jobs' plan and have found that the math does not add up. Put simply, Hudak's arithmetic says 2 + 2 = 100.

Stanford's post on the Progressive Economics blog is worth quoting extensively:
When Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak kicked off the current election campaign with a plan to “create a million new jobs” in Ontario, he tried to dress up the platform launch with a certain scientific respectability.  The party released a “technical backgrounder” showing the precise composition of the million new jobs, along with two commissioned consultants’ reports that were said to justify the estimates contained in the plan.
Stanford goes on to note that the PCs did not post these online, but some reporters did, allowing him to do some forensic analysis.  He goes on to say:
There are many important economic and methodological issues with the policies proposed by the PCs, and the way they have used the consultant reports to try to justify their numbers.
These problems deserve a lot of further study, including:
  • The apparent double-counting of fiscal savings (like the wage freeze on public servants).
  • The failure to account for any employment downside from major public sector spending cuts.
  • The failure to include the 100,000 direct public sector jobs that the PCs pledge to eliminate.
  • The lack of any empirical support for the plan’s estimates of job gains from apprenticeship training or GTA transit initiatives.
  • How they measure “regulatory reduction” and its impact on employment. ...
Ontarians can and should have a serious policy debate over whether Hudak’s proposals would have any stimulative effect on employment at all (let alone creating a million new positions).
However, those substantive policy debates may be swamped by an enormous arithmetic mistake which can be deduced by comparing the numbers in the PC technical backgrounder, with the supposedly supporting evidence contained in the two consultant’s reports.  Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa has critiqued this error.  Here are the details as I read them.  In essence, the two consultants generated estimates of the number of cumulative jobs that would be created from the simulated policies over several years.  But the PCs have assumed that those jobs would be created in each year of the 8-year plan.  They have thus exaggerated the number of jobs by several times (as many as eight-fold).
Does this remarkable display of ineptitude deserve to be rewarded with the keys to Queen's Park?

Horwath's Bad Day
In an online column written for the Globe and Mail on Friday May 23, longtime party stalwart Gerald Caplan strongly criticized the NDP campaign asking plaintively: Do progressives even have a place in the Ontario NDP? It slammed the Horwath campaign saying, among other things:
Your election campaign has frankly been a mess. No coherent theme, no memorable policies, nothing to deal with the great concerns of New Democrats everywhere: increasing inequality, the precarious lives of so many working people, reduced public services, global warming. I’m afraid you offer little sense that you understand Ontario’s needs and that if elected you have any serious plan to meet them.
Later the same day a letter to Horwath signed by 34 unhappy New Democrats was obtained by the CBC, which stated: "We were angry when you voted against the most progressive budget in recent Ontario history. Given your mistrust of the Liberals it still would have been better to insist they carry out their promises rather than just bringing them down. But in your campaign it seems you don't agree with the proposals in the budget From what we can see you are running to the right of the Liberals in an attempt to win Conservative votes."

The list included some with high profile New Democrats such as Michelle Landsberg, former Toronto Star columnist and wife of former NDP leader Stephen Lewis. Perhaps less appreciated today is that Gerald Caplan at one time worked very closely with Stephen Lewis. This suggests to me that although he is unlikely to say anything publicly, these actions have the tacit support of Stephen Lewis, a party icon credited with the first big electoral breakthrough in 1975, and the person who delivered a strong eulogy at the Jack Layton funeral.

It is hard to see how this won't eventually be very damaging to the NDP, which has been struggling against strategic voting on the centre-left, a phenomenon that first strongly established itself in Ontario in the 1999 provincial election. The formerly red Tory Ontario Progressive Conservative Party moved strongly to the right in 1995, and the ideological gap between the Conservatives on the one hand, and the Liberals (even of the Dalton McGuinty blue Grit variety) and the NDP, on the other, has been wide ever since.

This makes the effort by the NDP to make a rightward tilt over the past couple of years surprising, as if they could ignore with impunity the temptation on the part of their supporters to vote Liberal. When the Wynne government announced an increase in the minimum wage, quite amazingly the leader of the NDP did not instantly welcome it. Instead she mulled it over for a couple of days then announced support for a higher wage (an obvious outflanking movement), but insisted it should be accompanied by a tax cut for small business.

She has also made some symbolic gestures. For example, Horwath attacked Kathleen Wynne for refusing to meet with Rob Ford (this was after Council had stripped him of his powers) perhaps hoping to tap into some of the support of Ford had. This was an example of truly terrible political judgment. It opened her up to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy, made effectively in this post by Liberal blogger Jeff Jedras, not to mention that fellow New Democrat Olivia Chow was shortly to announce a race against Ford. It was too small a gesture to have any political benefit. It only had costs. In a word it was stupid.

A strong rebuttal to the unhappy New Democrats was posted by Alice Funke of Pundits Guide that gives some insight into the thinking behind Horwath's strategy. She argues that traditional NDP politics had failed in earlier years leading Jack Layton and Horwath to "more prairie formulations". She says of Horwath:
She has made a bold calculation that the strong desire for regime change in the province, coupled with a fear of the extreme programme of the Hudak PCs, creates a unique opening for a modern social democratic offer that balances fiscal responsibility with progressive working class populism; one that actually stands a chance of stopping a Hudak majority, in the very regions the provincial Liberals are now weakest.
There a couple flaws embedded in all this. Horwath's approach was first conceived as a strategy against the blue Grit McGuinty. It has taken no account whatsoever of the shift within the Liberals from centre-right to centre-left with the leadership change. All Horwath has been able to offer is that the Liberals are corrupt or that they make promises that can't be believed, neither of which directly addresses the ideological issues raised.

Where it could conceivably be effective is in parts of the province that have completely discounted the Liberals. Maybe the NDP can replicate some of their success in the by-elections held after 2011 in urban ridings in southwestern Ontario, a region hard hit by the economic downturn. However, if there is some residual Liberal strength even here, it is unlikely to work. In addition there is no broad perception that the NDP can win province-wide, a condition that would be necessary to the success of the Horwath strategy.

On the prairies themselves the NDP don't have to worry about Liberals, left-leaning or otherwise. Liberal parties there have been weak for several decades. Using "prairie formulations" in a province where the political context is completely different doesn't make much sense.

In this respect I do think Funke's reference here to Layton is simply wrong. The key to NDP success in 2011 was in Quebec, where Layton's appeal could not be characterized as rooted in prairie NDP politics, along with the incompetence of Michael Ignatieff. The 2011 NDP experience has no applicability to Ontario 2014.

Of course, any strategy requires NDP supporters to remain loyal. Could Horwath have done something to keep the dissenters loyal? The unhappiness with the Horwath approach was widely discussed within party circles prior to the election. Perhaps the NDP planners needed somehow to take it into account, and could at least have done something to prevent a public outburst.

One can easily perceive strikes against all three parties: Hudak's hopeless math and ideological blinkers, the now almost 11-year Liberal record that includes the scandals and an economic downturn, and the NDP's tactical, strategic and policy blunders. The confused polling picture should surprise no one.