On Thursday, October 2, 2003, Ontarians will go to the polls to elect a new government. Conservative Mike Harris won the last election held on August 3, 1999, winning a solid majority of seats with 45.1 percent of the vote. The Liberals had 39.8 percent and the NDP received 12.6 percent of the vote. When Premier Eves called the election, the Party standings in Queens Park were 56 for the Conservatives, Liberal 36 and 9 for the NDP.
At the time the 2003 election was called, the Liberals had a strong lead in public opinion. Polls taken on September 3 and 4th showed that the Conservatives had narrowed the lead, turning it into a tight two-way race. A Toronto Star poll by EKOS Research Associates published on September 6, 2003, showed the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty having 43.5 percent of the decided vote and the Conservatives under Ernie Eves with 42 percent of the decided vote. Howard Hampton's NDP had 13 percent of the vote. According to the poll, 14.3 percent of the voters were undecided.
On the important issue of leadership and who would make the best Premier, Ernie Eves won 40 percent approval compared to McGuinty's 28 percent and Hampton's 20 percent support. It has been suggested that Premier Eves' handling of the recent black-out gave him a boost in popularity and helped him leave problems like the Walkerton water crisis and other controversial issues behind him.
On a regional break down, the Liberals had the support of 50 percent of voters in the 905 area code region of Mississauga, Hamilton and Niagara. The Conservatives had made gains in Eastern Ontario where they stood at 48 percent to the Liberals 33 percent, and the NDP's 16 percent. Clearly, southwestern Ontario is going to be the crucial battle ground for ridings which may well determine who forms the next government.
London has four ridings. Three are presently held by Conservatives with Liberal Steve Peters holding Elgin-Middlesex-London. In 1999, there was a redistribution of ridings that reduced the number of seats to the same number as the Federal ridings in Ontario. London lost one riding which saw elected M.P.P.s Diane Cunningham running against Marion Boyd in London-North-Centre.
The current race in London-North Centre is interesting in that three strong women candidates are running. The seat is presently held by Dianne Cunningham, Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities in Ernie Eves' government. Cunningham defeated NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Marion Boyd in the 1999 election, thanks to the strong showing of Liberal candidate Roger Caranci who drew away enough opposition votes to enable Cunningham to win. This election is shaping up to be a repeat of 1999 with Liberal Deb Mathews (sister-in-law of former Liberal Premier David Peterson and who was defeated by NDP Marion Boyd in 1990) running against Cunningham. Matthews has just completed a Ph.D. in Sociology at UWO and is a long time Liberal back room strategist. Running for the NDP is Dr. Rebecca Coulter, a Professor at the UWO Faculty of Education. Both challengers are strong candidates with deep ties to the riding. Cunningham was formerly a 15-year member of London Board of Education and was first elected M.P.P. in a by-election in 1988. Cunningham has a strong presence in the riding and will be tough to defeat. With the opposition split between two strong candidates I give the nod to Cunningham in a tight three-way race. Bronagh Morgan is the Green Party candidate., The Family Coalition Party candidate is Craig Smith. Running for the Freedom Party Lisa Turner.
In the 1999 election London West Conservative Bob Wood narrowly held off a strong challenge from the Liberal candidate winning by only 294 votes. Bob Wood, running for re-election is facing a strong challenge from lawyer Chris Bentley who is running for the Liberals. The NDP candidate is teacher Patti Dalton. However, she does not have strong ties to the riding and is running a distant third. This race will be close between incumbent Bob Wood and challenger Chris Bentley. Laura Wythe is the Green Party candidate. Bill Frampton is running for the Freedom Party.
London-Fanshawe riding is presently held by former police officer, Frank Mazzilli. He was first elected in 1995 defeating Irene Mathyssen, a NDP M.P.P, who was elected in 1990 in Bob Rae's electoral sweep. Mathyssen, a teacher, is back fighting for her old job and is one of the strongest NDP candidates running in the area and the only former NDP M.P.P. running locally. Political new comer Khalil Ramal, who was born in Lebanon and has strong business and academic credentials, is running for the Liberals. He burst upon the local political scene defeating London City Controller Bud Pohill in a nomination upset.
In London-Fanshawe riding, the battle is a three-way fight with a high profile sitting Conservative M.P.P. and a former NDP M.P.P. and Liberal challenger, Ramal. Another factor is the large Italian population in London-Fanshawe who traditionally are strong supporters of the Liberals. They will be tempted to vote for one of their own. This factor will hurt Ramal's chances of winning. It remains to be seen what impact 9/11 will have on the election and whether or not the electorate will vote for a Muslim candidate. Another key factor will be the voter turnout of the large Muslim and Arab population in London-Fanshawe. Organized Labour is supporting Mathyssen. With the split in the vote, Mazzilli has the advantage, but Mathyssen could win if the Tory vote collapses. Ramal could be elected if there is a strong Liberal showing and the Liberals form a majority government. Running for the Freedom party is Mike Davidson. The Green Party candidate is Bryan Smith.
Elgin-Middlesex-London, which includes part of White Oaks and the former Town of Westminister is held by the popular former Mayor of St.Thomas, Steve Peters. He is the Liberal critic for Agriculture and is in a strong position. He is being challenged by former Middlesex Conservative M.P.P. Bruce Smith. Smith, a resident of St. Thomas and a former planner with the Town of Westminister and City of London, ran a strong campaign in 1999 narrowly losing to Peters. The NDP is running Bryan Bakker, a political unknown. John Fisher is the Green Party candidate.
The little known NDP candidate should help Peters to capture the majority of the disaffected voters who are against the Conservatives. However, Elgin County is known for its strong Conservative voting base. The newly appointed St. Thomas mayor Jeff Kohler has endorsed Smith, so do not count the Conservatives out. Ray Monteith is running for the Freedom Party. This riding should see Steve Peters win re-election in a two-way race.
It remains to be seen what the impact of the Tory attack ads against Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty will have on the electorate. The news release which called McGuinty an Aevil, reptilian kitten-eater from another planet@ and a failed attempt at humour, seems to have soured the electorate on the Conservatives.
The latest poll taken after the Tory spoof press release and published on September 16, 2003 and conducted by Ipsos-Reid, showed that 49 percent of decided voters planned to vote Liberal versus 35 percent who supported the Conservatives and 12 percent who would vote for the NDP. If the NDP fortunes rise, they could take enough anti-Tory votes to deny victory to the Liberals.
According to one expert, one-half to two-thirds of Ontarians decide for whom they will vote in the last ten days of the campaign. If this latest poll is an indication of a trend, then the Liberals may well form the next government in Ontario. However, the election is far from over and London's four ridings will be crucial to the outcome. A lot will depend on the political campaign over the next few weeks and which party can get their supporters out to vote.