© Canadian Press photo
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne
Kathleen Wynne powered Ontario's Liberals past a legacy of scandal Thursday, staving off aggressive assaults from the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats to cruise to a fourth straight mandate and an unexpected majority.
Within an hour of the result becoming clear, Tory Leader Tim Hudak - whose austerity platform of smaller government and public-sector job cuts ran smack into a voter brick wall - took to the stage to announce he would resign as leader.
“We did not receive the results that we wanted,'' Hudak told dejected supporters at his headquarters in Grimsby, Ont.
“(But) nobody should take this result as an endorsement of the status quo.''
Hudak said he would stay on as leader until a replacement is chosen, and would remain a member of the legislature.
Despite a hard-fought campaign that saw accusations of corruption and incompetence hurled at her minority Liberals, Wynne managed to persuade jaundiced voters to give her government another chance and make her the province's first elected female premier.
“I've said it before and I'll say it again: the word Liberal is not just letters on a lawn sign,'' Wynne wrote in an email to supporters after the polls closed.
“It is the generosity of spirit that defines us at our best - and so do you.''
The ballots were counted amid a palpable sense of uncertainty as to whether or not the snap election, called more than a month ago, would yield a decisive result.
Defying almost all predictions, Wynne earned a convincing win both in the popular vote and the number of seats, paving the way for her Liberals to govern on their own.
The Liberals were well ahead of the Tories in the popular vote as voters rejected Hudak's pledge to slash 100,000 public sector jobs as part of a shock deficit-tackling therapy.
Preliminary results put the Liberals at 58 seats, Hudak's Conservatives at 27 seats and the New Democrats at 22. At dissolution in the 107-seat legislature, the Liberals held 48 seats, the Tories 37 and the NDP 21, with one seat vacant.
Stony-faced tension at Liberal headquarters in Toronto gradually gave way to excitement and delight as it became clear the Liberals had taken the night.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau congratulated Wynne on the breakthrough that puts her back in the premier's chair, this time with the blessing of voters, not just her party.
Millions of voters had spent the day casting judgment on the scandal-plagued minority Liberal government under Wynne, who was seeking her first mandate after becoming party leader 16 months ago.
Polls suggested an exceptionally tight race was in the offing. But as the results came in, it became apparent that Wynne had made her case for a renewed Liberal mandate by promising a fiscally responsible but progressive government.
Wynne spent much of the campaign staving off attacks related to decisions made by her predecessor Dalton McGuinty, which included the cancellation of two gas plants at an estimated cost to the public of $1.1 billion.
Both Hudak and Horwath were relentless in branding the Liberals as corrupt and incapable of fiscal responsibility, pointing to the province's $12.5-billion deficit.
Their campaigns, however, were anything but plain sailing.
Hudak ran into trouble with his pledge to create one million jobs - widely panned by economists as based on faulty math - and his promise to cut 100,000 public sector jobs at a time the provincial economy is sputtering.
Yet he persisted, positioning himself as the only plain-speaking leader ready to tell voters what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
“It's only fair to be straight with people about the need to rein in the cost and size of government instead of making expensive campaign promises that can't be kept,'' Hudak said.
The New Democrats, offering a grab-bag of pocketbook promises such as lower hydro rates and auto-insurance bills, appeared to throw Wynne a lifeline as Horwath tilted her party distinctly to the right.
It was Horwath who triggered the $90-million, 40-day campaign by refusing to support the minority Liberal budget many observers called the most progressive in the province's recent history.
As a result, Wynne fought back by arguing her party was the only option for Liberal and New Democrat voters worried that a Hudak government would be a throwback to the days of former Tory premier Mike Harris, whose time in office in the mid- to late 1990s was marred by labour and education unrest.
She promised a provincial retirement savings plan along the lines of the Canada Pension Plan along with investments in education and transportation.
A vote for the NDP, Wynne insisted in the last week of the campaign, would be a vote for Hudak.
“If people don't vote for our plan, then Tim Hudak will be the premier, because it is a tight enough race that that is what will happen,'' said Wynne.
Horwath scorned Wynne's overtures to NDP supporters, arguing voters didn't have to choose between the “corrupt'' Liberals and the Tories' “crazy'' platform.
The campaign grew more petulant as it wound down, with the leaders accusing their rivals of fearmongering and mudslinging while arguing they were presenting a positive message.