May 3, 2018 – With the kick-off to the 2018 Ontario Provincial Election only a week away, Counsel’s series continues with the pivotal battleground in this year’s election: the suburban ring of the Greater Toronto Area.

It’s a timeworn but true observation that elections in Ontario are won and lost in those areas of the GTA surrounding the City of Toronto, the sprawling suburbs colloquially known as “the 905” (despite the fact that the 905 area code extends well beyond these boundaries). Near-domination of the region was the bedrock of the PC majorities in the mid- to late-1990s, as well as a consistent feature of Liberal governments since 2003. The outer GTA has long been the “mushy middle” of Ontario politics, with a fiscally-conservative orientation comfortably co-existing alongside a fierce attachment to Ontario’s public healthcare and education systems.

In many ways, the outer GTA’s middle-of-the-road perspective may carry a greater impact in this election than ever before. The entire region has witnessed enormous growth over the past 20 years. The combined population of the four constituent regions (Peel, York, Durham and Halton) now exceeds the City of Toronto itself, demonstrated by the growing number of condominium towers and ever-denser suburbs.

This growing influence was reflected in the electoral boundary changes that took place prior to this election. Of the 17 new ridings created in Ontario, most are located in the GTA outside of Toronto. The region as a whole is also much more diverse, creating a complicated web of issues and considerations for political parties that are looking to secure their electoral fortune in this vote-rich region. Although the growing importance of the outer GTA theoretically favours the incumbent Liberals, the impact of nagging pocketbook issues and many years of Liberal government have created a strong opportunity for PC success.

Once again, the adage holds true: as goes the outer GTA, so goes the province.

With that background, here are a few ridings to watch:

Ajax

Incumbent: Joe Dickson (Liberal) *as Ajax—Pickering

Challengers: Rod Phillips (PC); Monique Hughes (NDP)

Previous Result: Joe Dickson (Liberal), 51.06% of the vote

Why we’re watching: Joe Dickson, the consummate constituency-focused MPP, has been comfortably elected and re-elected three times since 2007. Then again, he’s never had to face a marquee challenge in his eastern GTA riding. That’s all changed this year, with former Postmedia Chair and Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation CEO Rod Phillips throwing his hat into the ring under the PC banner.

Phillips, who once served as Chief of Staff to Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman, is a seasoned political insider and one of the PC Party’s marquee candidates, even briefly considering a run for the leadership of the party in the wake of Patrick Brown’s resignation. Nevertheless, it would be a big mistake to count Dickson out. Notwithstanding his record of strong electoral performances, Dickson’s near-obsessive focus on maintaining his local profile has made him an ever-present fixture in the community (he’s served variously as local MPP, councillor and school board trustee since 1970) and built up plenty of goodwill, whereas Phillips more recently moved to the community.

The riding, made up of a portion of Dickson’s current riding of Ajax—Pickering, is more favourable for Dickson than ever, containing just Liberal-leaning Ajax (the Federal Liberals in 2015 earned an additional five per cent of the vote share compared to neighbouring Pickering—Uxbridge, much of which Dickson currently represents). Both candidates will also be closely scrutinized for their position on the new Durham Live entertainment and gaming complex, which has left many local officials and residents angry over the Province’s decision to award the facility to neighbouring Pickering at the expense of an existing racetrack in Ajax. The province-wide political winds may censure Dickson’s re-election, or catapult Phillips to the front bench of a new PC Cabinet.

Brampton East

Incumbent: Vacant *as Bramalea—Gore—Malton

Challengers: Parminder Singh (Liberal); Simmer Sandhu (PC); Gurratan Singh (NDP)

Previous Result: Jagmeet Singh (NDP), 44.32% of the vote

Why we’re watching: Brampton East is the most intriguing race in what promises to be competitive contests across all four ridings encompassing this highly diverse, sprawling suburb northwest of Toronto. Whereas the other three Brampton seats will almost certainly be more conventional contests between the incumbent Liberals and PC challengers, Brampton East presents a unique case.

Since 2011, the former riding of Bramalea—Gore—Malton was represented by NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh, who resigned his seat last year to assume the leadership of the federal NDP. The seat has remained vacant since then. Singh’s charisma and vaunted organizing skills were major contributors to his electoral success and made him an unconventional presence in the NDP caucus: the sole suburban GTA and visible minority member in a caucus dominated by the NDP’s traditional Southwestern and Northern Ontario strongholds. There was hope that Singh’s success would create a lasting beachhead for the NDP among the diverse, working families of Brampton. With Singh pulling up stakes for Ottawa, the NDP has decided to make it a family affair, nominating his brother and fellow lawyer Gurratan Singh.

The choice is an understandable one. Nominating Gurratan Singh gives the NDP the best chance of holding on to the existing seat and maintaining the continuity of the provincial NDP. Continued NDP presence in the new riding is meaningful to Jagmeet Singh’s federal aspirations as well, since his unconventional plan is to run in Brampton East to secure a seat in the House of Commons in 2019, rather than seek another seat through a by-election.

The Liberals will be hoping to capitalize on the elder Singh’s departure to win a seat they’d once held, and to offset a loss elsewhere. Their nominee, Dr. Parminder Singh, is a strong contender in the race. The medical doctor is a widely known (and heard) figure in the local community as the founding host and play-by-play commentator of CBC’s popular Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi broadcasts.

Burlington

Incumbent: Eleanor McMahon (Liberal) – President of the Treasury Board

Challengers: Jane McKenna (PC); Andrew Drummond (NDP)

Previous Result: Eleanor McMahon (Liberal), 43.4% of the vote

 Why we’re watching: Burlington was rarely kind to the Ontario Liberals in recent decades. The riding and its predecessors have been represented by a long line of PC MPPs, including former Ministers George Kerr and Cam Jackson. That changed in 2014, when Eleanor McMahon was able to ride the wave of Liberal support across the GTA to earn a convincing victory over PC incumbent Jane McKenna, whose single term as MPP was preceded by controversial anti-immigration remarks made as a candidate.

Since that time, McMahon has become one of the fastest rising stars in the Liberal caucus, earning a reputation as a dogged and effective MPP and Minister. Her charm, assertiveness and command of the issues has earned her many fans in and around the Legislature – important attributes in her newest role overseeing the government’s purse-strings as President of the Treasury Board.

Now the stage is set for a much-anticipated – and likely bruising – rematch between McMahon and McKenna. While this race in and of itself may not tell us much about either party’s broader fortunes, it will be an interesting test of whether McMahon’s success at Queen’s Park has translated into votes at home.

Markham-Stouffville

Incumbent: Helena Jaczek (Liberal) – Minister of Health and Long-Term Care *as Oak Ridges—Markham

Challengers: Paul Calandra (PC); [TBD] (NDP)

Previous Result: Helena Jaczek (Liberal), 45.52% of the vote

Why we’re watching: For nearly a decade, Helena Jaczek and Paul Calandra represented the same riding at different levels of government and on different sides of the partisan divide. That all changed with Calandra’s defeat in the 2015 federal election. His nomination as the Ontario PC Party candidate in Markham—Stouffville puts the two local politicos in a head-to-head matchup for the first time. However, the battlefield itself has changed considerably.

Oak Ridges—Markham has grown rapidly over the past two decades and was more impacted by the updated electoral boundaries than any other riding in Ontario. The former riding, which was the second-largest by population in Ontario and crossed three municipalities, was completely broken up to create two new ridings and contribute portions to several others. The new riding of Markham—Stouffville represents the far western portion of the previous riding, and contains most of the growing, diverse suburbs that were previously most favourable to the Liberals.

Jaczek, who has served in Premier Wynne’s Cabinet since the 2014 election, was recently promoted into the high-profile portfolio of Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, reflecting her experience as a physician and former Medical Officer of Health for York Region. Calandra will have to count on fatigue with the Ontario Liberals, along with a focus on pocketbook pressures, to nab this riding away from one of Premier Wynne’s top Ministers.

Milton

Incumbent: Indira Naidoo-Harris (Liberal) – Minister of Education *as Halton

Challengers: Parm Gill (PC); [TBD] (NDP)

Previous Result: Indira Naidoo-Harris (Liberal), 44.79% of the vote

Why we’re watching: The race for Milton sets up another contest between a sitting Liberal MPP and a former Conservative MP, but with an important twist: PC candidate Parm Gill didn’t represent Milton, or its predecessor Halton, but instead is the former MP from Brampton—Springdale. In that way, his own story reflects Milton itself, which has seen its population double to more than 110,000 over the past decade as people from across the GTA have pulled up stakes and moved to Milton’s rapidly growing suburbs.

Milton has retained its solidly middle-class character, but its huge population of diverse young families is a profound break from the recent past. The new riding was carved out of the larger Halton riding, and comprises the entirety of the growing municipality. The change is generally seen as favourable to the Liberals, who will no longer have to contest the rural areas of northern Halton. Naidoo-Harris, a former high-profile journalist in the US and Canada prior to her election in 2014, was appointed to Cabinet in 2016, moved quickly through several increasingly challenging roles and was recently promoted to the front rank of Cabinet as Minister of Education. Although her time in the high-profile portfolio has been brief, it sends a clear signal to voters in Milton that she will be one of the leading members of caucus in a re-elected Liberal government. That being said, the migration of families from Mississauga and Brampton exposes political parallels as well. A victory by the PCs or the Liberals in Milton will be a good barometer of how they may fare in the neighbouring municipalities.

Mississauga Centre

Incumbent: N/A

Challengers: Bobbie Daid (Liberal); Tanya Granic Allen (PC); [TBD] (NDP)

Previous Result: N/A

Why we’re watching: Mississauga Centre is a new electoral district, carved out of portions of four existing ridings to reflect the growing population of this mega-suburb immediately west of Toronto. The riding encompasses the increasing number of condominium towers, as well as older apartment buildings, that make up the “City Centre” area of Mississauga, as well as the established suburban neighbourhoods surrounding it. It’s an economically and culturally diverse community that has been consistently Liberal since the PC governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.

The upsurge in PC support across the GTA has turned Mississauga into a key battleground, and Mississauga Centre was an anticipated target for the PCs. However, the nomination of Tanya Granic Allen as the PC candidate will be a test of how strong the desire for change really is. Granic Allen, a pro-life and anti-sex education activist whose firebrand style earned her significant attention during a brief PC leadership run, was nominated to hoist the PC banner despite not living in the riding.

As a fierce opponent of the revised sex ed curriculum, Granic Allen was primed to build on potential goodwill from many in the riding’s socially conservative ethnic communities. But her candidacy has been off to a rocky start. Granic Allen is under fire after she made negative comments about the LBGTQ+ community and Muslims – the latter particularly problematic in a riding with a significant Muslim community. PC Leader Doug Ford has resisted calls to rescind Granic Allen’s nomination, ensuring that these and (perhaps) further controversies will dog the race until election day – with the Liberals and NDP eager to tie Ford to Granic Allen’s prejudiced statements.

The Liberals were unable to find a star candidate to oppose Granic Allen, instead turning to Bobbie Daid, a local businesswoman who previously ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in Dufferin-Caledon in 2014, as well as Mississauga City Council in 2011. Granic Allen’s high profile will either prove to be a weakness or a strength as the race in Mississauga Centre shapes up as a test of pocketbook issues versus principles.

Newmarket—Aurora 

Incumbent: Chris Ballard (Liberal) – Minister of the Environment and Climate Change

Challengers: Christine Elliott (PC); Melissa Williams (NDP)

Previous Result: Chris Ballard, 43.8% of the vote

Why we’re watching: Once represented by Counsel Public Affairs’ own Charles Beer (back when it was the much larger riding of York North), the riding of Newmarket—Aurora (and its predecessor) were reliably held by PC MPP Frank Klees throughout the Harris, Eves and McGuinty governments prior to his retirement in 2014. Aurora Councillor Chris Ballard, buoyed by changing demographics and generally high Liberal tide in York Region, pulled a surprise victory that year. Ballard was elevated to Cabinet last summer to the important role of Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, and his tireless work ethic will be critical to success in the upcoming election.

The political climate in York Region appears ripe for a PC resurgence, and the party has rebounded strongly following some earlier missteps. The nomination of candidate Charity McGrath was nevertheless a source of deep local controversy, with the local PC riding association’s Board of Directors having quit en masse with allegations of fraud. The concerns were credible enough to have McGrath’s nomination re-opened by the Party following the resignations of Patrick Brown and Party President Rick Dykstra, and ultimately tossed out. This opened the door for a new nominee – none other than Christine Elliott, who narrowly lost the PC leadership to Doug Ford and whose socially moderate, fiscally conservative brand is well-aligned with the riding.

Ballard’s challenger has changed from low-key to marquee – albeit one who is parachuting into the riding. With either candidate expected to be a frontbench Cabinet minister, Ballard will be hoping that Elliott’s lack of local roots will play more prominently than fatigue with the Wynne Liberals in what will be a very difficult re-election effort.