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Ontario’s parties suddenly suffering some convenient political amnesia

Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP organizer and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.

A strange case of amnesia has afflicted the provincial political parties in Ontario. Some attribute the malady to a relatively common virus for which there is no known antidote: acute political opportunism. Researchers have identified the following symptoms.

At the very top, the new Liberal government immediately forgot that it had fluked its majority government, winning with under 39 per cent of the popular vote. When Stephen Harper finally achieved his majority in 2011, it was with just under 40 per cent of the vote, and Liberals were energetic in pointing out that over 60 per cent of Canadians had repudiated him. The plea was that he should govern with the entire country in mind. Of course this was a waste of breath on the Prime Minister, but it seems equally uninteresting to Ontario's premier. No wonder we'll never achieve proportional representation.

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Far beneath the winners are huddled an amnesiac group of Conservatives who in less than a month have completely forgotten their enthusiastic support for their leader's harebrained campaign platform. Throughout the campaign, candidate after candidate stood beside Tim Hudak, beaming, applauding, joyously repeating his perverse message, as the leader gifted his Liberal opponents with their precious majority. Today, all good Ontario Tories repudiate those same crank policies. Apparently during the campaign they just cravenly bit their tongues and play-acted all those beaming, sincere-seeming smiles. Who knew? Thank goodness the real Progressive Conservatives, who only last month seemed loyal Hudak apparatchiks, are finally ready to take back their party.

Finally, at the bottom of the heap once again is the Ontario NDP, whose leader seems to have suffered an acute bout of post-election forgetfulness. After her perplexing campaign, Andrea Horwath apparently forgot she was leader and disappeared – a malady that had struck her before when it came to debates about the minimum wage and an Ontario pension. This time she disappeared completely for 13 days after the campaign, only to emerge to celebrate a different campaign, one that she seems to have won. According to the official record, her party finished in third place with the same number of seats as before the election and a marginal increase in votes. According to Ms. Horwath, the election was a triumph for the NDP and a vote of confidence in her leadership. Like today's Conservatives, she creates her own reality. Maybe she can even get away with it, as they sometimes do.

Of course, there are now bigger fish to fry than provincial politics. There will be a federal election in about a year, and based on Monday's by-elections and on polling trends in general, both Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair would welcome a serious attack of amnesia. If it weren't for the NDP's continuing strength in Quebec, Justin Trudeau could now begin naming his cabinet. To the shock of many, Canada's Natural Governing Party has miraculously revived. As election savant Éric Grenier observed in this newspaper, the by-elections continued a consistent trend since Justin Trudeau took over the Liberal Party: "significant Liberal gains across the board, even in former Liberal wastelands, and losses for both the Conservatives and New Democrats. This also echoes what the national polls have been reporting for more than a year."

It's pretty obvious the Conservatives are in trouble but it's not as obvious how they'll get out of it. Naturally their instinct will be to ratchet up their despicable anti-Trudeau attacks, like the handouts in the Scarborough-Agincourt by-election scurrilously accusing the Liberal Leader – not for the first time – of actively promoting marijuana to young kids. If they can avoid amnesia, the Conservatives might recall that such lies won them all of 29 per cent of the Scarborough-Agincourt vote this week, a mere 30 per cent behind the winning Liberal candidate running on Mr. Trudeau's coattails.

As for the NDP, it was of course a disastrous night all around, almost obliterated in three of the four by-elections and coming fully 19 per cent behind in Trinity-Spadina, Olivia Chow's former seat. What's worse, ironically, the NDP campaign in Trinity-Spadina was formidable, an impeccable model of its kind, only possible in a by-election. Yet the party still got good and trounced. I'm sure there's a silver lining in here somewhere for the NDP, but I'm having trouble remembering what it might be.

But New Democrats mustn't forget to celebrate at least one moral victory in the past month: the emergence of their Trinity-Spadina candidate Joe Cressy as a looming superstar – maybe even, eventually, in national politics. Mr. Cressy proved to be the absolutely perfect NDP candidate: a serious social democrat, idealistic yet practical, thoughtful and knowledgeable, indefatigable, honourable, focused on issues. Mr. Cressy fully lived up to the impossibly high expectations of his admirers and emerged with high praise from every corner. Whatever he now chooses to do, the world will see lots more of Joe Cressy, and that at least is something New Democrats can remember with pleasure.

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