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Ont post-mortem: fed parties read the signs

OTTAWA - If there's an overarching lesson from the Ontario election being drawn around Parliament Hill, it's to keep the party tent flaps open to all comers.

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne appeared to secure her majority victory by encroaching on conservative territory, while Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives seemed to scare potential supporters away with a plan simply too right-wing and austere.

In Hudak's case, some federal Conservatives wonder why his team didn't follow the ecumenical model laid out by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Where Harper has eschewed big, bold moves, Hudak promised to cut 100,000 public jobs to get a grip on the deficit — even suggesting school class sizes should be increased. Where Harper seemed to campaign from the middle of the road, Hudak stuck to the right lane.

Lisa Samson, a longtime Conservative strategist, says a major lesson to be learned is that policies must resonate with a wide cross-section of regular folks — such as Harper's 2006 promises to cut the GST and to implement the $100-per-month childcare benefit.

"These were measures that were applicable to the vast amount of voters and so they know what they're voting for and how it will impact them and their own pocketbook issues," said Samson, a managing partner with consulting firm StrategyCorp.

"That's something for the federal Liberals to keep in mind as they formulate their own campaign platform."

Ontario Independent MP Dean Del Mastro says the Ontario PCs will need to go through the same process as the federal Tories did, emphasizing they're for all Ontarians through a rebranding exercise.

"We've gone through four elections where (former premier) Mike Harris is still being attacked — Mike Harris hasn't been premier for 12 years," said Del Mastro, who stepped out of the Conservative caucus pending a court case.

"If they want to get past that, they have to demonstrate they're a different party, with different people with different ideas and they've got to be more broadly appealing."

The NDP and the Liberals, meanwhile, are busy analysing the vote breakdown and what it could mean for building support federally.

Liberal strategist John Duffy, currently working on the Toronto mayoralty campaign of John Tory, said the Ontario election results suggest the federal party has opportunities not just with NDP supporters but also with Conservatives.

"It showed that the paradigm that suggests that the only opportunity for the Liberals is to consolidate support among New Democrats and Greens — that's not true," said Duffy.

"If the Conservatives actually run on "cut to grow," as they did here in Ontario, the biggest province in the country, they're not going to win. So it's an expansion of strategic opportunity for the Liberals."

Anne McGrath, national director of the NDP, said the Ontario election was another test of the tactic of trying to consolidate progressive voters behind one party in order to stave off a Conservative win.

She argues Wynne was unsuccessful at collapsing the overall NDP vote, which actually went up, in the same way that former federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also failed.

What does this mean for Tom Mulcair's NDP? McGrath says it's time for her party to turn the dialogue on its head, and argue for making the NDP the only choice for progressives.

"The building blocks are there — we've got the leader, we've got the caucus, we've got the cabinet ready, a team of people, we've got the organization, and I think a solid basis of support right across the country," said McGrath.

Samson said there's one more key message that all parties should consider, not just after the Ontario vote, but also after the British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec campaigns that foiled predictions: don't take anything for granted.

"I'm seeing already in Ottawa people who think the 2015 election is a slam dunk. ... What you do and don't say in a campaign actually does matter."

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