Quebec vote shows scandals won't hurt Wynne

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Are you surprised - pleasantly or not - by the buoyancy of Kathleen Wynne's Liberals in the polls on voting intentions more than halfway to the June 12 Ontario election?

Do you wonder how a three-term incumbent party manages to swim against the tide for change, even as it is dragging some pretty heavy scandal-related baggage?

Then you have not been paying attention to what took place in Quebec only a bit more than a month ago.

After one of the shortest spells in opposition purgatory in modern Canadian history, against the backdrop of ongoing anti-corruption investigations and a public inquiry, Philippe Couillard's Liberals were ushered back into government.

The ethical clouds that linger over the party did not only fail to stand in the way of a victory, the win came with the bonus of a governing majority.

That should prove helpful if the new Liberal government must weather a storm brought about by the sins of a predecessor.

Of course, the Ontario campaign is far from over and, this week, the NDP, for one, has turned its guns on the ethical failings of its Liberal rival.

For the record, it is at the exact same juncture in the Quebec campaign that the other parties launched a barrage of insinuations and allegations at Couillard and his Liberals.

The second of the two Quebec leaders' debates was essentially a mud-throwing contest. It probably turned some viewers off the election altogether but it failed to turn the tide against the Liberals.

In the wake of the April 7 vote, pundits noted - with varying degrees of consternation - the short legs that the issue of ethics and integrity turned out to have. It was not an election deal-breaker.

But when all is said and done, there is little new under the sun in the fact that policy routinely trumps ethics at the ballot box.

In the eighties, Brian Mulroney's first mandate was riddled with scandals and controversies. Yet his free trade and the constitutional initiatives still earned him a second majority victory.

When his party was almost wiped off the map five years later, it was over its failed national unity record and the GST, and not the ethical character of the government.

In Quebec's recent provincial vote, the prospect of a return to referendum politics under the PQ, the threat of the party's proposed values charter to the social fabric of the province, and the perception that the party had abandoned its social-democrat principles more than offset the ethical baggage of the Liberals.

So what, if anything, should the federal opposition parties make of the marginal place of government scandals in the overall Quebec and Ontario election pictures? For one, that there will be a lot less mileage to be had from matters such as the robocalls affair or the Senate spending scandal in next year's campaign than there has been in the House of Commons.

That is not to say that those controversies will have no place in the federal election narrative. But by 2015, perceptions of the character of the prime minister rather than the actual machinations that his government may have engaged in will be more central.

It was easier for many Quebec voters to cast a ballot for Couillard last month - even if he was a less effective campaigner and a less tested leader than his predecessor - than it had been to support Jean Charest 18 months earlier.

Wynne - like Couillard - benefits from being a new broom. Harper - if as expected he leads his party in next year's election - will not have that advantage.

And then, since Stéphane Dion was crucified by the Conservatives for having dared to campaign on an activist climate change agenda in 2008, the federal opposition parties have been falling over themselves to convince voters that they would strive to run unambitious governments.

They are increasingly attracted to bright, shiny baubles that come at little political price but also have just as little policy value.

Yet Wynne - who has gone the other route with a bid for a made-in-Ontario pension plan - is, so far, still standing.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

 

Organizations: NDP, PQ, House of Commons Conservatives

Geographic location: Quebec, Ontario

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