Rahim Mohamed: Municipal elections show a shifting mood. Poilievre should be thankful
Goodbye “defund the police”, hello “fix the sidewalks.”
By: Rahim Mohamed
Municipal elections rolled through Ontario a few weeks ago, drawing precious little fanfare along the way.
Turnout sank to a near historic low, as some two-thirds of eligible voters stayed home. This despite increased access across the province to early and online voting (cities that moved to online voting, including Barrie and Vaughan, saw no overall bump in turnout).
It is perhaps ill-advised to try to infer any meaningful trends from what was essentially a non-event but, hey, how else would hack writers like myself get paid? Outside of general voter apathy, the most noteworthy development of the evening is that centrist pragmatists with rather modest aspirations for their respective cities had a good night. Voters turned away from grand designs for public transit, walkable urban green spaces, and bike infrastructure and expressed a clear, if muted, preference for a more back-to-basics mode of urban governance that prioritizes safe streets, sensible housing solutions, and adults in city hall.
In Toronto, human sweater vest John Tory sailed to his third term as mayor, netting 62 per cent of the popular vote and sweeping all 25 of the city’s wards. Tory will now be able to add “first mayor in Toronto’s post-amalgamation era to be elected to a third term” to a comically Laurentian Elite résumé that includes stints as principal secretary to ex-Ontario premier Bill Davis, president and CEO of Rogers Media, and commissioner of the Canadian Football League.
In Brampton, former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown was re-elected by a two-to-one margin over runner-up Nikki Kaur. This despite finding himself in the crosshairs of feared strategist Nick Kouvalis, the bare-knuckle brawler behind the successful mayoral campaigns of Rob Ford and John Tory.
Brown’s decisive win cements his place as the most influential political figure in Ontario’s 905 area code, a region that will be a critical battleground in the next federal election.
But the evening’s most interesting contest played out in Ottawa — a city that was brought to its knees by convoy protests earlier this year. A mayor’s race that was expected to be a nail-biter between talk radio host and political neophyte Mark Sutcliffe and two-term Ottawa City Councillor Catherine McKenney broke decisively for Sutcliffe, who won by a comfortable 13-point margin. (McKenney, who uses “they/them” pronouns, had hoped to become the city’s first gender non-binary mayor.)
As was noted in a recent piece by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, Sutcliffe campaigned on a promise of a “safe, reliable and affordable Ottawa.” He edged past McKenney by keeping his feet closer to the ground. Whereas McKenney “swung for the fences” with a number of splashy campaign promises — including a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar investment in bike infrastructure and a pledge to end chronic homelessness by the end of their first term as mayor — Sutcliffe maintained a disciplined focus on bread-and-butter issues like public safety, road maintenance, and tax relief.
Even so, the night’s biggest winner was not Mark Sutcliffe, but rather another Ottawa-area politician. Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre, who represents the riding of Ottawa-Carleton in the House of Commons, ought to be thrilled with how Ontario’s municipal elections went.
Despite auditioning for the role of prime minister, Poilievre has had a lot to say in recent months about issues that have historically been the domain of city halls. He has been especially vocal about the housing affordability crisis plaguing Canada’s major cities, promising to tie federal infrastructure spending to high-density zoning, and to introduce a raft of policies to make home ownership more attainable for first-time buyers. Poilievre has also taken aim at “catch-and-release” policing, recently delivering a scathing speech upbraiding authorities for failing to keep the public safe from the perpetrators of the stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan, despite one of the men having 59 prior criminal convictions.
Poilievre has not hesitated to wade into partisan city politics. In a statement in the House of Commons after the votes were counted, he congratulated Vancouver’s electorate for rejecting the “radical policies” of Justin Trudeau and outgoing mayor Kennedy Stewart (formerly an NDP MP) by choosing businessman Ken Sim to be the city’s first right-leaning mayor in over a decade; asserting that Vancouverites “voted to remove the gatekeepers, to build more affordable homes, and [to] bring in commonsense laws to restore safe streets.” These words succinctly capture the prevailing mood of urban electorates across Canada.
Of course, none of this is to say that Poilievre himself tipped the scales in this years’ municipal election. In fact, it’s more likely that he’s merely riding a wave of popular sentiment — an anti-progressive backlash in some of the United States’ biggest cities foreshadowed the events that are now playing out in Canada’s city halls. Local elections turn on local dynamics and, as such, are difficult to generalize, but the zeitgeist nevertheless appears to be a pivot away from progressive utopianism to centrist pragmatism. Goodbye “defund the police”, hello “fix the sidewalks.”
Long seen as a rural party, the Conservative Party of Canada has historically struggled to make inroads in Canada’s major cities. As such, the ongoing shift of urban electorates towards centrism presents a critical window of opportunity for the Poilievre-led Conservatives. Poilievre, who has worked hard over the past several months to establish credibility on urban issues, appears well positioned to ride this wave all the way to the prime ministership.
Rahim Mohamed is a freelance writer based in Calgary. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has taught at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC) and Centre College (Danville, Kentucky).
(Line Editor’s note: The original version of this piece ought to have more explicitly credited this article by Michelle Rempel Garner. We’ve updated this version to reflect that.)
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