Taking stock of the year in Ontario politics, it's hard not to think of the Oct. 10 election. Which means it's hard not to think of John Tory trying to "change the channel," or political reformer advocates imploring voters to embrace a new way of electing governments. -- Both failed badly.
For the latter, it means any hope of selling mixed member proportional voting in Ontario has been deep-sixed for years to come.
Before the campaign, John Tory saw full funding for faith-based schools as an issue that could put some distance between him and the Liberals. As recently as February, his Conservatives actually held a thin lead over the governing Liberals in opinion polls. That would change in abrupt fashion.
Once he played his hand on the funding issue, Tory was in constant damage control. The debate simmered all summer, hostility growing each week, first from the streets and then from his own rank and file. By election day, his misread of Ontario values helped the Liberals gallop to another majority mandate, and Tory himself suffered the ignominy of losing his own seat in the legislature.
Howard Hampton, conscionable leader of the NDP, campaigned hard to achieve modest gains. He raised the party's popular vote to 16.8 per cent and increased its seats from 7 to 10. His exit as leader is not imminent, but don't bank on Hampton running the show for the 2011 election.
The Green party won legitimacy by nearly winning its first seat, coming second in Grey-Bruce-Owen Sound. They nearly tripled their popular vote, and they field stronger candidates each time out.
If the election was calamitous for the Conservatives, it was a bolt of renewal for Dalton McGuinty's Liberals. Having lost four byelections in 2006 alone, the Grits entered election year 2007 very much on their heels, struggling just to stay neck-and-neck in public opinion polls, insisting they would survive on their record. They did.
Tory's fatal gaffe may have cemented the final verdict, but it was also evident that Ontario's crucial strata of "swing voters" were comfortable with the awkward McGuinty and his judgment -- even on the legitimacy of his reviled health-care tax, despite McGuinty's foolish 2003 campaign utterance to the contrary. Opposition howls about broken promises evidently didn't stick with many voters.
The Grits quickly seized the momentum of victory. The day after the election, cabinet declared Feb. 18 would be Family Day, a new statutory holiday. In the weeks since, as Tories bickered over leadership, Liberals rolled out announcements often short on detail, but playing to the sensibilities of many Ontarians: Ramping up anti-poverty initiatives; a dental plan for the working poor; major funding for public transit and infrastructure; a separate and distinct cabinet voice for aboriginal affairs.
In politics, nothing is forever. The Tories will live to fight another day, and in 2008 the Liberals will face the tough squeeze of falling revenues and rising social costs, as our economy cools under high energy prices, a strong loonie and more lost manufacturing jobs.