The McGuinty Liberals squeaked into a minority government on October 6, mostly by hanging on to their electoral seats in urban areas—especially in and around Toronto. It was clear that their strategy in the campaign was to focus on these seats. The premier talked up his Green Energy Act incessantly, and the Green Energy Act—with its requirement that provincial rate-payers provide generous financial support for wind and solar power—is popular among the motivated “base” voters in those areas.
The GEA is decidedly not popular, though, in a number of rural areas, especially those with significant numbers of industrial wind turbines. Did the premier know that touting the Act would cost him seven rural seats, including three held by ministers in his cabinet? If he did, he obviously had done his arithmetic and decided the urban-rural tradeoff was worth it.
In terms of the bottom line, winning the election, this was probably a smart choice on his part. Had he not talked up a major point of cleavage between him and his rivals, he might not have given his base voters the critical motivation to get out and vote on October 6. Voter turnout across the province was the lowest since 1867, and it was particularly low in some of the urban areas that the Liberals won. Without that cleavage point, urban Liberal candidates who barely won against close NDP and PC challenges—for example, Laura Albanese in York South-Weston and Bob Chiarelli in Ottawa West-Nepean—might have come up short.
The big question is, what happens now. The GEA was a flawed work in progress on October 6. The Liberals knew the GEA’s wind farm prescriptions were trouble back in February, when they put a moratorium on offshore wind turbines after strong local opposition to offshore wind projects. Those suspicions were confirmed with the loss of seven rural seats on October 6.
And the Liberals know that the other side of the GEA coin, natural gas-fired generation, faces equally formidable opposition. They have seen three big gas-fired plants—in Woodbridge, Oakville, and Mississauga—die from determined and well-organized local efforts.
Does this mean the Liberals will continue their drive to put wind farms into areas that clearly don’t want them? I doubt it, but we’ll see. The Liberals have to now cooperate with the PCs and NDP on major policy initiatives. The PCs won’t support wind farms. The NDP may, but they have other electricity priorities, such as re-regulation, that might be more important to them. In any case, the Liberals know they owe the loss of their majority to their support for wind farms.
On the other hand, just to make things interesting, they know they owe their minority victory to them.
One thing is crystal clear. Local opposition has proved to be a major force in the development of electricity policy in Ontario. The Liberals might be already so tired of facing local opposition that they would look with great interest at communities where power plants actually have widespread support. Imagine that, a community that says YES in my backyard.
There is one such community. It is just east of Toronto, in Clarington. Clarington is home to the Darlington nuclear station, a huge provider both of clean cheap electricity and high paying local jobs. Darlington, the Liberals agree, needs a couple of new reactors. Building two new reactors would be the biggest capital infrastructure project in North America, and the biggest job creation project as well.
And it would also be the biggest clean energy project on the continent.
How could such a project be handled in the new minority legislature? It is doable. Both the Liberals and PCs are on record as supporting it.