Carlo Colantonio is holding forth on his verandah, in one of those west-end Edwardian neighbourhoods where people spend a lot of time on their verandahs, chatting away, calling out to passing friends on the street.
“I think they’re gone and buried,” he says. “They had their time.”
He means the Liberal party, whose fortunes he’s followed from the same front porch for decades. Mostly, that has meant watching his Italian immigrant neighbours troop to the polls and elect Grits with the regularity of church bells. “Nobody votes Conservative here,” says Colantonio.
But these days, they don’t vote Liberal, either.
In this year’s federal election, upstart New Democrat Andrew Cash captured the riding of Davenport with 54 per cent of the ballots, including Colantonio’s. Nor, in Colantonio’s eyes, was this an aberration. He’s convinced the NDP will prevail here again in next month’s provincial election.
“I’ve called it every time,” he says. “The Liberals have no chance. Even my mother’s getting fed up, and she’s a card-carrying member.”
For a party that once blithely assumed governance was almost a dictate of nature, it’s been a stunning reversal.
As recently as the 2004 federal and 2007 provincial elections, the Liberals walked away with nearly every seat in the city. Not so earlier this year, when Toronto sent just six Liberals to Ottawa, behind nine Conservatives and eight New Democrats.
But this wasn’t the electoral equivalent of a century flood, or even just the result of two stunningly inept Liberal campaigns against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
The how and why of the Liberal decline are so complex and compounding that they may not easily be reversed. Just about every political development has worked against the party, from the Tory wooing of immigrants and the inner-city ascension of the left, to the fading popularity of the Green party and the redrawing of provincial ridings so they align geographically with federal ones.
In the wake of that pressure, Liberal dominance has been eroding through a series of federal and provincial elections — a cautionary sign for Premier Dalton McGuinty even if the most recent polls still put the Liberals ahead in Toronto but trailing the Tories elsewhere.
The Liberal decline is amply evident in a series of maps on which the Star plotted the results of every federal and provincial campaign since 2003 by neighbourhood polling divisions.
What was once a sea of Liberal red, akin to old maps of the British Empire, has been turned into a frail patchwork of pink, the result of what looks like a pincer movement — the Conservatives gradually marching in from the surrounding suburbs, the NDP rising up in the core of the city.
In this year’s federal election, the Liberals managed to lose ridings in almost every conceivable way. They were clobbered in two-way races against both the Conservatives and the NDP. They came out on the losing end of three-way races, again to both Tories and New Democrats.
For Liberals, it’s an unfamiliar landscape, but one they’ll have to transform if they hope to retain the keys to Queen’s Park.
It used to be that Torontonians routinely sent Progressive Conservatives to Queen’s Park and Liberals to Ottawa, as if that particular alchemy would best serve the city, or at least hedge against unwelcome developments from either capital.
The federal and provincial wings of the parties were seen as more distinct entities, and they didn’t always like each other.
Back when the Big Blue Machine was running the province, Ontario PCs generally looked upon their federal counterparts as hapless amateurs whose fringe elements were always making public pronouncements that alarmed even the livestock.
In Liberal circles, the flow of condescension was reversed, so it was hard to speak of a single Liberal or Conservative brand, unified in outlook and mission.
It helped that federal and provincial ridings were geographically different. You might vote federally in York East but your provincial riding was Don Mills, stretching farther to the north.
That all changed when former Ontario premier Mike Harris redrafted the electoral map to align provincial and federal constituencies. Gone was the geographic half-step of party difference, the federal/provincial divide becoming increasingly blurred.
Prime Minister Harper certainly has not been shy in parading his avid support of both Ontario Progressive Conservative party leader Tim Hudak and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, although the latter connection may yet prove toxic for the Conservatives if Ford’s popularity continues its downward spiral amid drastic cuts to public services.
The dissolving of federal/provincial distinctions also aligns with the kind of world Mike Harris’s strategists always dreamed about, one of simpler electoral choices pitting left against right, with Liberals mostly spectating from the sidelines.
As it happens, the city’s electoral map does look like it’s headed in that direction, given the dual ascendance of Conservatives and New Democrats, although more so in the city’s core, which has lately been painted consistently orange.
“The downtown core has its own political esthetic, its own sense of what’s a good community, what’s a good government, and the Conservatives don’t fit into that,” says Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Ryerson University. “The NDP has a kind of urbanity about it, a commitment to cities as diverse and creative.”
That includes support for government services and investing in infrastructure, both of which appeal to downtown voters.
For Conservatives, though, a more suburban Toronto breakthrough has meant something else.
Tories used to fret that they could never form a majority government without Quebec, but if the 2004 and 2006 campaigns taught them anything, it was that they now couldn’t win outright without Toronto, and the key to unlocking that was the ethnic vote.
Hence the party’s 2007 conference document, “Ethnic Outreach: Building Bridges with Ethnic Communities and New Canadians,” which starts with the proposition that “new Canadians and minorities still don’t know/understand the Conservative Party.”
But not just any new Canadians. The Conservatives believed (wrongly in the case of Davenport) that older immigrant groups such as Italians were irretrievably lost to the Liberals.
The emphasis instead would be recent immigrants, particularly South Asians, in the belief that their fiscal conservatism and family values better meshed with the Conservative platform. They also targeted Jewish voters in ridings like Eglinton-Lawrence, highlighting their staunch support of Israel.
Such was the intensity of ethnic wooing that, inside the party, point man Jason Kenney was soon dubbed the “minister of curry.”
The recruitment of more South Asian and Indo-Chinese candidates came with no small bonus, since those communities have a legendary reputation for organizing, all but ensuring an increased turnout of favourable voters.
It paid off. In Greater Toronto, Conservatives walked away with 32 of 47 seats in 2011, dominating the immigrant-laden ridings of Mississauga and Brampton. Nine of those seats were in Toronto itself, in ridings where the average immigrant population was 49 per cent.
Davenport wasn’t among those victories, and it may be the result of changes in demographics and voting patterns that seem instead to have favoured the NDP in the city’s core.
Colantonio’s house may be just two blocks from the Corso Italia of St. Clair Ave. W., but the surrounding neighbourhoods, once dominated by Italian immigrants, are now home to an increasing number of other ethnic groups, principally Portuguese and Latino, and young, urban professionals lured by still-affordable housing close to the core.
“If you want a global village, it’s here, Davenport,” say Colantonio. “Most of the old people have gone. The people here are mostly professionals.”
As of 2006, the most recent census data, more of the riding’s labour force worked in business services alone (24 per cent) than construction and manufacturing combined.
The utter collapse of the Green party also seems to have benefited New Democrats in downtown constituencies. In Davenport, for instance, the Greens went from 10 per cent of the vote in 2007 to just 3 per cent last time out, with the departing voters — at least in that election — more likely to have returned to the New Democrats.
But Siemiatycki also suspects the NDP may have been aided, at least downtown, by another emerging force: tenants.
It was once axiomatic that renters were much less likely to vote than property owners, an aspect of voter turnout largely thought to favour the Conservatives and Liberals.
Yet when Siemiatycki looked at municipal voting during the two elections of mayor David Miller’s reign, wards with the highest percentage of tenants increasingly had the highest levels of overall voter turnout.
“Gone are the days when we just made the assumption that tenants aren’t engaged,” says Siemiatycki.
Long-term, this may even have consequences for the riding of Toronto Centre, which Liberal politicians at both the federal and provincial level have long viewed as a kind of national platform from which even loftier political careers can be launched. To wit: Bob Rae and George Smitherman.
All but surrounded by solidly NDP ridings, Toronto Centre has lately been home to a boom in highrise residential housing, much of it ultimately rental.
None of this, however, explains what happened in Scarborough-Rouge River during the last federal election.
It may be an area of relatively low family incomes, but home ownership amounts to a core value. Only 27 per cent of voters live in rented dwellings, roughly half the level of most Toronto constituencies.
It’s also one of the Dominion’s most immigrant-dominated ridings, at 68 per cent of the population, where roughly half the people speak a language other than French or English at home.
The Conservatives did make gains here. But it was the NDP’s Rathika Sitsabaiesan who put an end to 23 years of Liberal incumbency by racking up 41 per cent of the vote, becoming the country’s first Tamil MP.
It helped, of course, that Scarborough-Rouge River reputedly has the greatest concentration of Tamils outside of Asia and that Harper’s Ottawa had formally branded Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization.
But something else might also have been at play, something that could yet help Liberal fortunes in other ridings.
In one of Malvern’s neighbourhood parks, there’s a small plaque. It tells about the man for whom it was renamed last year, Maj. Abbas Ali, late of the Pakistan Army, who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s and became involved in all sorts of community work.
He founded the Muslim Welfare Centre and Halal Meals on Wheels, abiding by his personal motto: “Service to humanity is service to Allah.”
The surrounding streets in Malvern and Morningside Heights are these days a sea of election signs, Liberal red and NDP orange vying for supremacy, with scarcely any Tory blue in sight.
None of which surprises 29-year old Sitsabaiesan. Yes, she’ll concede, the Tamil vote was crucial in her case, yet she also thinks her volunteer work in the community, particularly with young people, played a role, and that, too, has a lot to do with South Asian values.
“When I went to people’s doors, they knew me,” she says. “In general, people from the Eastern world — Asia, Indo-China — are fiscally conservative but very socially progressive, in the sense of being concerned about looking after the community.”
Could that emphasis on community and helping the disadvantaged also point to a path back from the wilderness for Liberals?
Siemiatycki thinks it might: “The more that Rob Ford is associated with what Conservative governments do, there will be negative spillover to Conservative candidates at other levels.”
Fears of “Ford Nation” and its electoral clout have rapidly given way to fierce opposition to, of late, the mayor’s plan to overturn 10 years of waterfront planning and replace it with ferris wheels, malls and monorails.
“The Ford factor is now negatively shaping people’s perception of Hudak,” says Siemiatycki, “and that’s creating space for the Liberals.”