OTTAWA - Kathleen Wynne not only won a majority government in Ontario Thursday, but she gave the Stephen Harper Conservatives someone to campaign against in the province that will decide next year’s federal election.
Publicly, federal Conservatives were pledging allegiance to Tim Hudak.
Privately, they knew a Wynne victory would give them the free-spending, debt-building enemy to vilify next year, something they will need if they are at least to hold their Ontario strength as they try to scale the dauntingly high political fence that goes up as a government seeks to enter a second decade in power.
Wynne began this odyssey campaigning against Harper. She will not have the luxury of choice going forward because federal Conservatives will go after her if there is no miraculous turnaround of the provincial economy.
Any economic malaise in this province will be blamed on her pension plan, her $29 billion in pledged infrastructure spending, her increase in social spending, even her support from public service unions, by federal Conservatives as they compare their self-proclaimed steady economic hand with the spendthrift Wynne.
But there are other lessons all three federal parties will heed from this 41-day campaign.
Hudak’s resignation means potential leadership candidates from within Harper’s cabinet, including the likes of Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt or Labour Minister Kellie Leitch.
For Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who drew huge crowds as he campaigned with Wynne, solace will come in the strength of the party brand in the province.
“Ottawa needs a partner in Ontario, not an antagonist,” Trudeau said Thursday night.
Liberals will also try to draw on the strategy of their provincial cousins to replicate success in the 905 belt, which shows deep fealty to federal Conservatives.
But it will be tougher to draw strength from the fact that Wynne seems to have built her majority on a collapsed PC vote and not by pushing New Democrats into the fold by warning a vote for Andrea Horwath would move Hudak closer to power.
Trudeau can be expected to make the same pitch in Ontario next year, telling New Democrats only he, not Mulcair, can stop another victory for the Harper Conservatives.
Mulcair must learn from a Horwath campaign that appeared to lean toward right-wing populism and strayed from the party tradition of putting big ideas in the electoral window in favour of consumer-friendly items.
He also has to deal with fractures within the party, some of which may spill into federal corridors.
Harper will be mindful that Ontario rejected the in-your-face austerity pitch from Hudak, but the prime minister has always sold a more moderate style of conservatism and he will be in a fiscal position next year to sweeten any tough medicine when it comes to cuts.
Still, any analysis of federal implications from Thursday’s outcome must be loaded with caveats.
There will be issues that will be at the forefront of the federal vote that were all but ignored in Ontario, most notably the environment.
Climate change, the future of the Alberta tarsands, pipelines (whether proposed or approved) and a cap-and-trade carbon policy will inevitably be the subject of a polarizing debate across Canada in 2015.
Personalities matter, and Trudeau, Mulcair and Harper all bring styles different from their provincial counterparts.
But ultimately, the contours of history and the power of incumbency cannot be ignored.
Historically, Ontarians vote contrarily on the provincial stage and the federal stage.
You can call it a fluke if you like, but history would suggest it’s more than that.
You can trace it all the way back to the days of George Drew and Leslie Frost, Conservatives elected provincially while Liberals ruled the federal roost under William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent.
This historical truism snakes it way all through the Progressive Conservative dynasty of John Robarts and Bill Davis (federal Liberals Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau); provincial Liberal David Peterson and New Democrat Bob Rae (federal Tory Brian Mulroney); Mike Harris leading Ontario while Liberal Jean Chrétien ran the country; and Dalton McGuinty winning while Harper was being elected federally.
There have been a couple of cases of Ontario voters going double-double, but those are the flukes.
And this, perhaps the most important message for Harper — in three of the country’s four largest provinces, incumbent governments have won in the past two years while, in the other, the Quebec Liberals spent a mere 18 months in the hinterland before recapturing power.
In every case — B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark, former Alberta PC premier Alison Redford, Quebec Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard and now Wynne — it took new leadership, a fresh face, to bury misdeeds of the past and win a new mandate.
Harper will look far from fresh in 2015.