Wind power concerns dethrone several Liberals in open country, leaving the Grits isolated in urban centres
The urban-rural split in Ontario has never been more evident.
Two cabinet ministers and a Liberal backbencher in the region’s farm belt were blown into the political dustbin Thursday by opponents of wind turbines during an election that split Ontario between urban and rural.
Most notable on the scrap heap were environment minister John Wilkinson, edged out in Perth-Wellington, and agriculture minister Carol Mitchell, who lost by a sizeable margin in Huron-Perth.
Joining them were Liberals Maria Van Bommel, who lost in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, and further afield, education minister Leona Dombrowsky, who lost in a rural riding where turbines dot the landscape – Prince Edward-Hastings.
All lost to Conservatives vowing a moratorium on new turbines and restoring a local veto over where they might go in the future.
Tories also won the day in London-area ridings where Liberals had vacated their seats: Elgin-Middlesex-London and Chatham-Kent-Essex.
The march of five ridings from Liberal red to Tory blue was repeated in rural ridings across Ontario, leaving behind an electoral map starkly divided between cities and farmland.
“The Green Energy Act dominated the campaign. I think it absolutely toppled the Liberals in those ridings and throughout Southwest Ontario, and it cost the Liberals a majority government,” said John LaForet, whose advocacy group Wind Concerns Ontario represents dozens of grassroots groups across the province.
Turbine protesters volunteered for Tory candidates, becoming foot soldiers. That left the Liberals with precious few rural seats.
Those protesters were incensed, said James Virgin of Belwood, north of Guelph, after Liberals backed off plans for natural gas plants in the GTA but pushed ahead with wind turbines in rural settings.
“People are concluding that rural Ontario doesn’t matter to the (Liberal) government of the day,” he said.
Their anger was especially focused on Wilkinson in his role as environment minister.
“There’s outright hatred for this man,” Virgin said.
From the perspective of one winning Tory candidate, the angst over wind turbines was part of greater discontent. Lisa Thompson, who defeated Mitchell in Huron-Bruce, said rural dwellers in her riding feel many of their concerns have gone unheeded by ruling Liberals.
“Rural Ontario over the last seven or eight years has lost its voice. They sent Mr. McGuinty a message: Rural Ontario matters,” Thompson said.
Also of concern in her riding has been the loss of rural schools, costly energy projects, hospital renovations and the state of emergency rooms.
The growing split between urban and rural is the most significant trend in the election, said political scientist Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto.
Liberals have been relegated to the party of Toronto, Ottawa and a few other urban pockets, he said.
While there has long been a divide between urban and rural, the latter supporting small-c conservative values, the gap has widened.
“The division has become accentuated,” Wiseman said.
That divide doesn’t explain the loss of Liberal backbencher Khalil Ramal in London-Fanshawe, a two-time MPP defeated by New democrat Teresa Armstrong.
Ramal explained his loss in part by the way Armstrong made use of the success of NDP MP Irene Mathyssen and sympathy for NDP leader Jack Layton after his recent death.
“(The NDP) brought Jack Layton into the picture a few days before the election and asked people to vote for NDP because a vote for NDP is a vote for Jack Layton. They got a lot of sympathy votes because of that,” he said.
–With files from Greg Colgan, Special to The Free Press
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