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Ontario election exposes three Achilles heels

Ontario Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, Progressive Conservative chief Tim Hudak and the NDP's Andrea Horwath address supporters at their respective election headquarters on Oct. 6, 2011.

Peter Power, Kevin Van Paassen and Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Each of Ontario's major political parties comes away with half a loaf after Thursday's election. And each will have to address their weaknesses as party organizations if they are to enjoy future political success.

Liberals and party-building: Dalton McGuinty's victory in the general election masks two major failings that bode ill for his party's longer-term future.

The party did poorly in the 13 ridings where Liberal incumbents did not run again, winning only five. In too many of these seats, the party nominated late or nominated poorly. A governing party should be able to find several appealing local worthies who can compete for nominations. And departing candidates should be able to bequeath more of their party organization and base of supporters to their successors.

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The Liberal crash in rural Ontario should be of greater concern. All rural ministers were defeated. Many races were close, but without a strategy to address the damage – and one that doesn't merely focus on agricultural policy – the Liberals will, by default, marginalize themselves further.

For an instructive example, look at Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke. Held for 28 years by Liberal Sean Conway (disclosure: my former employer), the seat was captured by Tory John Yakabuski in 2003 by 645 votes. And with each election, the Liberals become more irrelevant in the riding – on Thursday night, Mr. Yakabuski won with 71 per cent of the vote, with only 16 per cent for the Liberal.

The Ontario Liberals are now the senior Liberal party in Canada. They can't depend on the federal Liberals to lead them back to rural success; they'll need to spend time in rural Ontario to win voters back.

The Tories and urban Ontario: In Toronto and Peel Region in particular, the Tory failure was complete. Not only did they not win any seats, none of their targeted races were even close. Supposed star candidates such as Rocco Rossi, Andrea Mandel-Campbell and Simon Nylassy were handed resounding defeats. Only three Tory candidates in Toronto and Peel's 30 seats exceeded 35.4 per cent in the popular vote, the party's province-wide vote percentage.

You can blame the Rob Ford factor; you can cite Tim Hudak's attacks on "foreign" workers, companies and scholarship recipients, or his unseemly defence of a campaign pamphlet with homophobic undertones. After being shut out for a third straight election in Toronto and Peel, the Tories will have to embrace an urban agenda without qualifications, or recruit from the ranks of elected urban municipal officials, to increase their chances of a majority.

The NDP and over-confidence: New Democrats now have seats in three regions where they were previously absent – in Southwestern Ontario's Essex, in London and in Brampton. The first two are areas of historic strength; Brampton was carried by criminal lawyer Jagmeet Singh, a candidate with great personal appeal and a committed youth volunteer corps.

Expect the NDP to tout these victories at every turn. But consider the real magnitude of the victory: just seven new seats. No pick-ups in Ottawa, the Niagara peninsula, Scarborough, even Thunder Bay (where both federal MPs are New Democrats), all regions the party had targeted.

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The NDP will have to encourage their new MPPs to spend as much time in neighbouring ridings as at Queen's Park. Otherwise, their new seats will be islands, not beachheads.

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