The Myth of Ontario's Fickle Liberal/Conservative Voting

Kathleen Wynne's electoral victory in Ontario last week has given more life to a common historical myth about Ontario politics. When Ontario votes Liberal provincially, they vote Conservative federally, or vice versa. According to its logic, the Conservatives will win the next federal election with Ontario's help in 2015. There's never any worthwhile explanation offered for this phenomenon, other than it “happens every time” and “Ontario voters are fickle.” A coincidence has become a pattern, but how do we distinguish the two historically?

It is a pretty stunning coincidence after all. For the last seventy years, Ontario has fairly accurately swung between Conservative and Liberal governments in Ottawa and Queen's Park in Toronto. Federally, much of those years were supporting Liberal governments, while provincially they were supporting Conservative ones.

We could go as far back as the 1940s and still see this pattern emerge when Ontario rejected their intransigent Liberal Premier Mitch Hepburn in the provincial election of 1943. Hepburn had been a thorn in the side of Liberal Prime Minister William Mackenzie King since the 1930s. When Hepburn claimed King wasn't doing enough to fight the Second World War, King responded by calling an election in 1940 partially as a referendum on the Canadian war effort, which his Liberal party easily won. As a result of the Liberal infighting, the Liberals in Ontario were severely weakened. As a result, the next provincial election in 1943 was a tight race between the Conservatives and the NDP forerunner, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation while the Liberals were demolished. Conservative George Drew won 38 seats, only four seats more than their CCF opposition. Drew's election began forty-two years of uninterrupted Conservative rule in Ontario.

In turn, the Liberals had almost as much success federally as the Conservatives did in Ontario provincially. King won one more election in 1945 and his successor as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister, Louis St Laurent, continued to win until 1957 (even against Ontario's George Drew who led the federal Conservatives by 1949). Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker led Canada from 1957-1963, until the Liberals regained power and Lester Pearson formed a minority government. After Pearson was Pierre Trudeau who, despite a brief interruption in 1979-80 when Conservative Joe Clark was Prime Minister, led Canada until 1984 when Conservative Brian Mulroney was elected. Just as the Conservative moved into 24 Sussex Drive, a Liberal government came to power in Ontario in 1985.

We could go back and forth, but suffice to say there is a pattern of Ontario switching between Liberal and Conservative support. Whether Liberal power in Ottawa means Ontario will have a Conservative Premier, or the reverse, is impossible to say. Many commentators point to Ontario voters and their supposedly fickle attitudes as something more than an interesting coincidence. Since Kathleen Wynne won on June 12, the logic would follow that Stephen Harper can expect Ontario's support in 2015.

Unless, of course, it is merely a coincidence.

The problem with neat patterns like that of Ontario voters is that it requires some sort of proof other than “most of the time it is right.” Historians, or anyone for that matter, need to be able to prove that one result has influence on the other. Mostly it is deemed as “truth” because as one Globe and Mail journalist recently wrote, “Ontario’s track record on bifurcation is so consistent that it’s hard to chalk it up to coincidence.” But just because something is coincidental often doesn't make it more true or factual than anything else. It's still coincidental until we find proof of a link between them.

It's true that the numbers sound pretty compelling. For instance, we could note that from 1900-2014 the same party has been in power in Toronto and Ottawa only 22 years out of 114. That's 19% of the time. If we decrease our range to 1943-2014, we could say that there has been the same party in power only in 1979, 1984 and briefly from 2003 to 2005. Liberal and Conservatives are in opposition some 90% of the last 71 years! What an amazing coincidence.

But wait – how do we explain any discrepancies? How do you explain Diefenbaker winning from 1957-62 without a mirrored Ontario Liberal government? When Trudeau formed a minority government in 1972, he won 38.2% of the vote and 36 Ontario seats. The Conservatives garnered 39.1% of the vote and won 40 seats. Why does Ontario vote in Mulroney in 1984, then a year later gives the Conservatives 52 seats provincially, but the 48-seat Liberals form government with the help of the NDP. Then, in 1990 Bob Rae's NDP comes to power. Where does five years of NDP government fit into the pattern? Why vote for Liberal Dalton McGuinty in 2003, then vote for the scandal ridden Liberals under Paul Martin in 2004? When Stephen Harper finally does form a Conservative government in 2006, again the Liberals beat them in Ontario seats 54 to 40. A closer examination of the supposed pattern reveals that the clean numbers we listed above aren't nearly as suggestive as you might think.

For historians, patterns like this are compelling. It's our job to make sense of the past. Still, we have to be careful since coincidence can incorrectly look like a deeper pattern. Any close examination of the elections that fit, or don't fit, that pattern reveals what we knew anyway: there are a set of factors which influence the voters' decisions. No doubt there are many factors which overlap when Ontarians are making their political decisions federally and provincially, some of which may cause them to choose opposite parties. But there is absolutely no proof that they consider one when choosing the other. Where is the Ontario voter who walked into a booth last Thursday and, after double checking that a Conservative was still living on Sussex Drive, marked their vote for Kathleen Wynne. More likely is a voter walked in, and because they didn't like Hudak's Conservatives or Horwath's NDP, voted for the Liberals.

Likewise, surely it would make more sense to say Liberals won Ontario federally in the 90s because the Conservatives imploded after Brian Mulroney's scandalous final years while a rising Reform Party was invoked as a backwards and worse, Western Canadian. Ontarians voted strategically and gave the Liberals several majorities. Or that the Conservatives won provincially in Ontario in 1995 because five years of NDP government turned so many voters against the progressives that they voted in neo-conservative Mike Harris. Or in turn that Dalton McGuinty won because they were unhappy with the devastating cuts of Harris' Ontario Conservatives, and Stephen Harper won because the electorate was finally upset enough with the federal Liberals to earn enough seats to form government. Or they had a set of ideas that were worthwhile and needed at the time which struck a chord with voters.

The most difficult obstacle in trying to understand why certain parties win an election is that we cannot peer into the mind of the voter. For every reason behind voter intention that we can identify through newspapers or interviews or polling, there's another reason that we can never know. There are millions of Ontario voters, who all no doubt vote according to a set of a factors that historians will never be able to identify.

So while we can point to the amazing coincidence of the Liberal/Conservative dichotomy, it's clear that that's all it is. A closer look reveals that there are many times where the pattern either explicitly doesn't fit or the elections where the dichotomy exists, but Ontario didn't in fact vote for the opposite party. There's no way to explain these anomalies other than that there is no pattern of Ontario voting, only circumstances and events unique to every election campaign.  When there are primarily only two parties to select, Liberal and Conservative (sorry NDPers), it's no surprise that a Canadian province switched between them. So for those who might be predicting a Conservative victory in 2015, you have been warned – don't take Ontario voters for granted.