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By Sid Ryan

Last week’s by-election losses were a body blow to the Liberal strategy leading into next year’s provincial election.  The Liberals went all out to deliver pre-emptive strikes against the Conservatives in Whitby-Ajax and the NDP in Toronto-Danforth.

How else can the Premier explain why he tapped Judi Longfield and Ben Chin on the shoulder to run? Both of these candidates had enormously high profiles and were fully expected to deliver the votes for the Liberals. The game plan was to strike mortal blows against the opposition parties in the run-up to the next general election.

In Whitby-Ajax, the federal elections signs had hardly come down when Longfield, who was defeated by Jim Flaherty, jumped into a grudge match-up against his wife Christine Elliot. The symbolism of it all was not lost on Queen’s Park watchers. McGuinty was going for broke by using his ace Judy Longfield  — tired and burned out as she was — to score a knockout punch against the Tories in one of their safest seats.

Likewise in Toronto-Danforth, the plan was to clip the wings of NDP leader Howard Hampton who sits at 21% in the latest opinion polls. Knocking off the NDP in their safest seat in Ontario would have killed the party’s momentum and left Hampton at the mercy of McGuinty for official party status. 

McGuinty now knows he has serious problems on the horizon as he makes his way towards October 2007. He also knows the Liberals won nearly two dozen seats by 5% or less in the last election.

Some of the problems he will encounter between now and then involve powerful groups such as the farmers of Ontario. The farming community is furious at the Liberals for their lack of financial support and has launched a province-wide Farmers Feed Cities campaign. On the eve of the by-elections, Finance Minster Dwight Duncan tried to avoid the farmers by sneaking in the back door of the Whitby Curling Club to meet a group of local business leaders.

However, with the assistance of Conservative leader John Tory, the farmers nailed him on the way out, forcing him out of his chauffeur driven limo. He had no answers except the usual platitudes, but the farmers are not stupid. They remember the Liberals were able to find a cool $400 million  to drop into a new casino hotel in Windsor, Duncan’s home riding.     

In health care, the Liberals face a coalition of unions representing 250,000 frontline workers who are furious about the introduction of private sector competitive bidding models into health care delivery. Using such market-driven models under the newly-launched Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) will drive down wages, working conditions and benefits. Already these unions are making plans to target the Liberals in 24 vulnerable ridings.

Likewise, university students are feeling betrayed by the Liberal reversal on the tuition freeze. Students are now worse off than they were under the previous Tory government when it comes to tuition increases.  They are mobilizing on campuses across the province to defeat the Liberals.

Compounding the government’s problems will be the departure of Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, who single-handedly brought peace and calm to Ontario schools.

This task now falls to Sandra Pupatello who, quite frankly, has not impressed in her former role as Minister of Community and Social Services. She did not deliver on key election promises to the province’s most vulnerable people on disability pensions and families on social assistance despite the government having an unexpected windfall of $3 billion in the last budget.

The province’s most vulnerable citizens will not fare any better under Pupatello’s successor, former Culture Minister Madeleine Meilleur, who is responsible for cutting services to public libraries across northern and southern Ontario. Some record for a minister of culture.

McGuinty is now in the seventh inning of a very tight ballgame and he clearly lacks depth on the bench. He has just used up two of his best prospects in the early innings — a gamble that failed miserably. He is now looking over his shoulder at the bullpen searching for an ace and all he can see is a collection of deuces.

Meanwhile, John Tory and Howard Hampton are warming up, fuelled by the bitter disappointment of farmers, students, health care workers, teachers, school support staff, trade unions, pensioners, environmentalists, families on welfare and workers on disability pensions.