McGuinty takes punches from both the left and right

Sep 15, 2007 04:30 AM
Ian Urquhart
Toronto Start

The Liberals are fighting a two-front war in the provincial election campaign, as they fend off blows from both the Progressive Conservatives on the right and the New Democrats on the left.

Both the opposition parties this week launched attack ads focusing on the Liberals' broken promises. And in their speeches and press conferences, PC Leader John Tory and NDP Leader Howard Hampton virtually ignored each other while lobbing grenades at Premier Dalton McGuinty.

"I think he (McGuinty) has lost touch," opined Tory. "He (McGuinty) thinks fairness is what's good for Dalton McGuinty, not for working families," echoed Hampton.

And while the alternative policies put forward by Tory and Hampton were quite different, the two leaders appeared at times this week to be using the same speechwriter.

For example, both of them referred to the health premium introduced by the McGuinty government as the "biggest tax hike in the history of the province" (a dubious claim), and both also called it a "regressive" tax.

A senior campaign official for the New Democrats denied that there was any collusion between the two opposition parties. "At a strategic level, there has been no communication with the Conservatives," he told the Star.

But a Conservative strategist responded with a knowing smile to the same question and compared the situation today to the Davis era three decades ago, when the Conservatives and New Democrats regularly plotted together against their common enemy: the Liberals.

Making matters worse for the Liberals, they also faced attacks from a range of interest groups, including: the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which put a mascot named "Fibber" on McGuinty's tail; the National Citizens Coalition, which launched ads lambasting the broken promises; and parents of autistic children, who today are scheduled to picket McGuinty's Ottawa campaign headquarters to protest government inaction on their concerns.

Furthermore, every incident during the week – a report calling Ontario the poverty capital of the country, a gloomy forecast for the province's manufacturing industries, a knifing outside a Toronto school, and renewed tensions between town folk and natives in Caledonia – was laid at McGuinty's doorstep by the media.

And by week's end, the media were accusing the premier of ducking them.

The multi-pronged attacks and the accumulation of bad news would be familiar to Ernie Eves, loser of the 2003 election to McGuinty.

But unlike Eves and the Conservatives in 2003, McGuinty and the Liberals began the 2007 election in the lead, and the polls at the end of this week show they are still in front, albeit narrowly.

The two-front war also gives the Liberals some leverage to use to their advantage.

They can, for example, portray themselves as the party of the middle versus the extremes of the right and the left, on issues ranging from nuclear power to taxation.

Expect McGuinty to stress this angle in Thursday's televised debate among the party leaders.

The Liberals can also play on fears of left-leaning Ontarians that a vote for the NDP will translate into a Conservative government.

Although he did not actually mention the NDP by name, McGuinty said repeatedly this week: "You can vote for one of the other parties and end up with a Conservative government." There was no doubt to which party he was referring.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties also have secondary fronts of their own to worry about in this election war.

Tory, for example, has had to deal with criticism from his own party members over his proposal to extend public funding to faith-based schools.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Dianne Cunningham told the Star: "He (Tory) may go down on this." And Conservative front-bencher Bob Runciman told Canadian Press: "It (the policy) is not playing well."

Various Conservative candidates and campaign workers sounded even more alarmed in off-the-record conversations with the media.

As for the New Democrats, they face the possible bleeding of votes to the upstart Greens, who are crowding double digits in the polls and have a certain appeal to two traditional NDP constituencies – young people and the environmentally conscious.

But in the final analysis, it is the Liberals who face the toughest challenges in this two-front election war.

Fighting one side while fending off the other will tax the combative skills of McGuinty and his campaign team.