Local Indicator Database for Economic Analysis
Ontario is a province divided. Yesterday’s election underscores very real and troubling schisms between local communities. While much of the election narrative focused on the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and its suburbs (the 905) due to their heavy weighting of seats, the broader picture is a clear rural-urban dichotomy in southern Ontario. Leaving aside Northern Ontario which has its own distinct socio-economic and political identity, the Liberals who won the election did not win a rural riding outside of the greater golden horseshoe. In addition to nearly sweeping the GTA and the 905 the Liberals won most cities in Ontario including London, Kitchener, Cambridge, Guelph, Barrie, St. Catharines, Brantford, Peterborough, Kingston, as well as
three five seats in Ottawa. The third place NDP won additional ridings in Hamilton, Windsor, London, Waterloo, Niagara Falls, and the GTA. Aside from one two 905 ridings (Thornhill and Whitby-Oshawa) the official opposition Conservatives were completely shut out in urban areas.
Ontario is not alone in producing such a sharply divided electoral landscape. Other provinces are demonstrating similar rifts. The recent failure of the Parti Québécois’ campaign largely came about due to their rejection by urban voters. Calgary and Edmonton the two largest cities in Alberta, Canada’s most conservative province, are helmed by young progressive mayors. When looking at county-level patterns, the red-state, blue-state story in the US is actually a rural-urban tale. While in each case there are unique local political issues, there are common underlying socio-economic dynamics.
In Ontario’s case the Liberals and PCs offered very clearly differentiated platforms. The former presented a case for government intervention in the economy and social welfare while the latter made a case for public disinvestment and laissez-faire economics. Majorities in urban areas voted for stronger government, rural areas chose weaker government. This should come as no big surprise. Cities are highly complex entities that place a diverse range of people in close proximity to one another. The only way for this to work is to have thick and reformable public institutions that act to bind all of the many elements together. Massive investments in both physical and social infrastructure are required for cities to thrive. Conversely, rural areas tend to be more homogeneous. The ‘glue’ in this case comes from informal social relations whereby social rules are more tacit and reinforced by non-state, often religious, institutions. In short, there are very different social contracts in rural and urban places.
Inevitably there a significant degree of resentment. The highly diverse nature of cities also makes them more dynamic, both economically and culturally. And with this comes power. Change tends to happen in cities. It tends to happen to rural areas. One pushes forward, the other resists. It is no wonder then that the suburbs are seen as the main electoral battleground. In the Ontario election yesterday the 905 opted to side with the core over the countryside. This is no accident of history. The Liberal government has put in place explicit urban growth strategies that have increased densities in places like Mississauga, where the long-serving mayor, Hazel McCallion, formally endorsed the Liberals and explicitly rebuked the PC vision as bad for cities. The connection between the Liberals urban policies and their election strategies not only won them the election, it makes them the natural ruling party going forward. As cities in Ontario grow at a much faster rate than the rest of the province, the seat-distribution will continue to tilt in their favour. The NDP currently have some traction in cities while the PCs have virtually none. If the opposition parties cannot genuinely understand urban dynamics and speak to them, the Liberals will continue to be the party of cities and the party in power.
Check-in next week for some quantitative analysis of these trends.