Stark message for urban voters: Take a hike

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
September 10, 2003

Stark message for urban voters: Take a hike   by Lawrence Solomon

Tory leader Ernie Eves has
broken faith with many
urban values. Credit: J.P.
Moczulski, Canadian Press.
Ontario Premier Ernie Eves’s re-election platform: “Shaft City Voters.” Opposition leader Dalton McGuinty’s motto: “Give Them Milquetoast.” NDP leader Howard Hampton’s? “Play Them for Fools.”

No party understands that fashioning a pro-urban platform that appeals to residents in cities and suburbs – more than 80% of Ontario’s population – would bring it a decisive victory. Instead, all dither with demographic formulas that don’t reach the electorate where it lives.

All politicians know that city residents are overwhelmingly liberal on social issues – urbanites favour gay rights, abortion, and the environment and they oppose capital punishment and immigration bashing. But Ontario politicians don’t understand that city residents are also overwhelmingly liberal on economic issues – urbanites favour competition, free trade and globalization.

Politicians elsewhere understand how city voters tilt, and craft platforms to suit. That’s why city dwellers in the UK twice voted in free-trading socialist Tony Blair over his rural-minded Conservative opponents, and why city dwellers in the U.S. twice voted in free-trading Bill Clinton over his rural-based conservative opponents. And why free-trading Al Gore swept the urbanized east and west coasts against rural-based George Bush in the last U.S. federal election. That’s also why Canada’s federal Liberals – who signed the NAFTA deal with Bill Clinton – all but own Canada’s dense urban ridings, even in much of the west.

For a while the Tories seemed shoo-ins for a long rule over highly urbanized Ontario. On economic policy, the Tories had solid free enterprise credentials, with Highway 407 successfully privatized and a privatization of Ontario Hydro in the works. The clincher with urban voters would be new leader Ernie Eves, a gay-friendly, high-flying divorcee, living common-law with a glamorous socialite. When faced with a choice at the ballot box, city voters everywhere are drawn to a melding of hip social policy and free market ideology.

But Eves panicked at low poll numbers then in place and abandoned his urban constituents. Instead, his handlers decided, he must shore up his party’s conservative base by tilting to older, more traditional, more rural sensibilities. In the social sphere, Eves declared that capital punishment was ok and that gay marriage and liberal immigration was not. In the economic sphere, he abandoned the free market in favour of regulated prices in electricity and auto insurance, and the protectionism that rural industries demand. In both spheres, he utterly broke faith with city values.

But Eves did more, too, by bringing in a slew of tax measures designed to shaft city dwellers in aid of conservative voters in the ridings he’s targeting outside cities. To aid homeowners, he proposes to give tax breaks on mortgage interest payments, a policy that tilts the housing market away from apartment rentals, one of the city’s most important industries. Not only would city tenants be taxed to support homeowners elsewhere but, if Eves has his way, the housing industry would tilt away from apartments, undermining the city’s future ability to provide, for example, short-term, affordable housing in a dynamic economy. In another perverse tax measure, Eves would give property tax breaks to seniors – Tory voters are disproportionately elderly – and make up the difference by taxing everyone else. Because of the way the education tax system works, city tenants, again, would be especially hard hit.

NDP leader Howard Hampton, in contrast to Eves, has social policies well matched to city sensibilities, and many city residents will reward him as a result. But his extreme socialist economics – Hampton is an old-line nationalize-industry kind of leader – jar most urban voters. A Tony Blair socialist – an approach some in the party have espoused – would couple a kind heart on social policy with a hard head on economics and support privatizations in power, water, public transport and others. Instead, Hampton makes the wild claim that privatization wrecked Ontario’s electricity industry – when privatization plans are still on the drawing boards, and when his own government when in power acknowledged the mess that public power had made. That’s why Hampton, who can only fool some of the people some of the time, is stuck at 14% in the polls.

To many city voters, the Liberals – Tory-lite on economic policy, NDP-lite on social policy – will be the least offensive. The provincial Liberals have learned nothing about the voting preferences of urbanites from their federal counterparts, but then, neither has anyone else in Ontario politics.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute. E-mail:

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