This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 20, 2018.
The fairy tale that best fits this Ontario election: Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The voters, playing the role of Goldilocks, find the Liberal porridge has grown cold and, for many, Doug Ford’s Conservative bowl a trifle hot. That leaves Andrea Horwath and the NDP an opportunity: to serve porridge that is exactly right temperature for the times.
I wrote in this space a few weeks ago that Horwath might well be the exception to the rule that you never get a second chance to make a good impression.
Despite two previous unsuccessful election campaigns, this time Horwath has done a commendable job of reintroducing herself, of focusing on families and the affordability of everyday life — two things that matter greatly to many voters.
In so doing, she has positioned the NDP as a safe place for those alienated from the Liberals but unsure — or too sure in negative ways — about Ford. That perception was reinforced in the televised leaders’ debates earlier this month, where, at times, she left Ford and Kathleen Wynne flailing at one another as she serenely looked on.
Horwath also stands to benefit from the key policy areas where Liberal and NDP ideology either intersect or align: free child care, the $15 minimum wage and pharmacare are all mainstays of the traditional NDP liturgy now embraced by the Liberals.
Put another way, she will give you benefits of popular Liberal policies without actually having to vote Liberal. And so, with relatively little difference between party platforms, party leadership becomes critical.
And that’s space where Horwath stands to gain ground. Fairly or otherwise, Wynne has endured a reputational drubbing not only during her time in office, but from a laser-focused Ford. The result? Horwath has been left largely unscathed.
Then, there’s the reality that Ford has trust issues of his own with many voters beyond the bastions of rural and 905 ridings. Ontarians have historically been skittish about Tories who veer too far off the centre.
Successful conservative leaders like Mike Harris understood this. He packaged his policies as “common sense,” a successful attempt to soften the public perception of their hard edge.
After veering toward the centre in her last election campaign, Horwath’s return to the ancestral home of the left may also be rewarded. The recent endorsement of Ontario’s powerful elementary school teachers’ union, despite the considerable financial accommodations it received from the Liberal government, is a direct message as much as a broader indicator.
Time also works in Horwath’s favour. Bob Rae’s controversial tenure as Ontario’s only NDP premier — so far — has either faded from public memory or gained enough of a sepia tinge that it is no longer viewed as something to be forever avoided. More than 30 years later, revisionist factions have had sufficient time to reassess his legacy and cast it in a more flattering light.
The similarities to the past are hard to overlook.
In 2018, we have — as when Rae shot to power — an incumbent Liberal party widely perceived as arrogant, expensive and out of touch. We have an untested Tory leader who brings a persona and platform that makes many voters feel uneasy. And, at the same time, provincial voters are expressing a strong desire for change.
But, so too, the deviations from the past are equally hard to overlook.
No matter how valiantly he tried to demonstrate his populist sympathies, Rae was never quite able to overcome the fact he was a privileged child of distinguished diplomats, a Rhodes scholar and an incandescent intellect.
Horwath, by contrast, is a more traditional NDP leader. She has working-class roots in Hamilton. She’s a single mom. She’s cultivated the “I am one of you” persona better this time out. It is also more true of her than Ford who, despite his talk of rejecting elites, certainly is one when expressed in terms of family wealth.
For those tired of the Liberals, but uncertain of or unsupportive of the Ford-led Tories, the leader who seems like a good neighbour offering a “just right” bowl of porridge may be, after all, a very appealing prospect.