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Oct
17 2011

What Really Happened in Thornhill?

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

For the past three elections in Ontario, the riding of Thornhill has always been one of the most closely contested.   In 1999, the PCs took it by just 300 votes. In 2003, it flipped over to the the Liberals by 800.  Then in 2007, the Tories took it back, but again, by a relatively slender margin of 1,500 votes.   So given how close the province-wide vote was earlier this month, there was every expectation that Thornhill would be one of those ridings that would go right down to the wire on election night.   It didn't.   Despite the fact the Liberals had a star candidate in Bernie Farber running for them, the former sitting member, Peter Shurman, took the seat by a whopping 2,700 votes.  Given that the Tories, as a party, did worse across the Greater Toronto Area, and actually lost 1,000 votes in Thornhill this time compared to 2007, how was it that they managed to increase their margin of victory in that riding north of Steeles?   For the answer, several sources have told me you have to look inside the ultra-religious Orthodox Jewish community.   Thornhill features the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in Canada. This community goes to synagogue a lot, and apparently, listens carefully to what the rabbis at those synagogues recommend. And in this election, they overwhelmingly recommended people vote Progressive Conservative.   Analysts have tracked the vote, polling station by polling station, and know that in neighbourhoods where the ultra-Orthodox live, the Ontario PC Party got almost all the votes.   How come?  A couple of reasons.    1. Thornhill was one of the few ridings the Tories won last time on the strength of former PC Leader John Tory's attempt to extend public funding to faith-based schools.   When the McGuinty Liberals won the election and that policy died, the Jewish community remembered.  Despite working most of his adult life in the Jewish community and agreeing with the faith-based funding policy, Liberal candidate Bernie Farber simply couldn't overcome the handicap that he was carrying the banner for the party that kneecapped that policy.   2. The Stephen Harper Effect: The prime minister has forged such a strong link with the Jewish community across Canada, thanks to his unrivalled support for Israel, that the Jewish community will vote Conservative, even though Harper's Tories aren't on the ballot.   True, Premier Dalton McGuinty went to Israel, and signed what potentially could be a $1 billion deal with Better Place (which ironically Tory leader Tim Hudak didn't support). And yet, that relationship seemed meaningless in the face of Jewish voter after Jewish voter who would simply say, "I'm voting for Harper."   You might ask, can the Jewish vote, and in particular, the ultra-Orthodox vote, really have that much sway?    The answer is yes.  Jews make up 36% of the Thornhill electorate(the largest concentration of Jewish votes in Ontario) and they vote. The ultra-Orthodox represent 10-15% of the Jewish vote, and they show up to the polls in disproportionate numbers as well.   So, in spite of no gains by the PC Party across the GTA, having an MPP who lives in midtown Toronto and not at all close to the riding, and as well-known a Liberal candidate as would be possible to run in that riding, the Liberals still got thumped.   Thornhill used to be one of those ridings that were "in play."    It sure isn't anymore.   Addendum: I spoke to MPP Peter Shurman today (Oct. 18/11). While he doesn't dispute how well he did in the orthodox Jewish community, he also believes there are other reasons why he won by a bigger margin this time 'round.   "Four years ago, I wouldn't even have been welcomed into some communities," he says.  "This time, I did very well in the Italian and Philipino communities because I served them well for the past four years.  A much broader ethnicity in the PC vote was much more in evidence this time."  

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