Putdowns and Promises: CityNews’ Ontario Election Debate
Ontario’s provincial election unofficially kicked into gear last night with its first televised leadership debate hosted by CityNews. Rather than an open forum focused on driving provincial policy initiatives, the debate was deliberately Toronto-centric, with questions being posed from members of the public chosen by CityNews. With early questions focusing on non-traditional political subjects like policing, racial profiling and addiction support, all three leaders stumbled out of the gates, veering off-track from core campaign pillars and narratives.
After a rough start, Ms. Horwath, Mr. Ford and Premier Wynne all hit their stride and the expected campaign themes emerged. Ms. Horwath and Premier Wynne routinely took Mr. Ford to task for his lack of specificity. Ms. Horwath and Mr. Ford repeatedly disparaged the Liberal track record and Premier Wynne painted a stark contrast between a progressive Liberal plan and an austere Conservative vision, while rarely acknowledging Ms. Horwath.
While Premier Wynne challenged the PC Leader on his plan with the latest economic stats, Mr. Ford was surprisingly the only candidate to announce policy, specifically on transit.
It would be premature to judge the effect on public sentiment, but early reaction polling from CityNews’ Twitter questionnaire indicated that Ms. Horwath’s performance enjoyed the most public support at 43 per cent post-debate. By this same poll, Doug Ford finished in second at 39 per cent and Premier Wynne was a distant third in 14 per cent.
Kathleen Wynne, Liberal
Throughout last night’s debate, Premier Wynne showed her grasp and in-depth understanding of her government’s plans and existing track record on a broad range of initiatives. She also provided a clear contrast to Mr. Ford by repeatedly emphasizing her perspective on the election as a stark choice between care and cuts.
In many cases, Premier Wynne was able to emerge as the primary opponent to Mr. Ford’s plain-spoken and polarizing message. The debate layout lent itself well to this, with her positioned in the middle. At times, she could literally turn her back on Ms. Horwath to engage Mr. Ford directly and take on his more controversial points.
She also demonstrated a clear intent to fight fire with fire in her relatively combative responses to Mr. Ford’s attacks. Given the broad scope of the debate, she struggled at times to focus her message on core campaign pillars. For example, her government’s popular increase of the minimum wage to $15 was never mentioned.
Doug Ford, PC
Doug Ford, who currently leads every major provincial poll and is favoured to win the June 7 election, entered the debate with a risk-averse approach to stay cool and demonstrate competence without alienating potential supporters.
He was successful in this respect, although his limited provincial experience showed at points when he spoke in short spurts and waived his allocated time.
His dismissive comments towards Premier Wynne, while relatively benign, will give his opponents yet another point of comparison between him and U.S. President Trump. For example, his compliment of Premier Wynne’s smile, while presented congenially, was perceived by debate watches as awkward at best and inappropriate at worst.
Unlike either of his counterparts, he also made new policy commitments, surprising viewers by opposing supervised injection sites and police carding, as well as committing $5 billion to a GTA Regional Transportation System.
Andrea Horwath, NDP
The consensus winner by most accounts, Ms. Horwath took significant steps to communicate and reinforce her positioning as a better alternative to both of her opponents. While the debate layout at times isolated her from disputes between Mr. Ford and Premier Wynne, she used this factor to her advantage, avoiding the bait of partisan bickering and addressing the camera directly.
While she directed several criticisms at the Liberal track record, she devoted equal attention to contrasting her vision with Mr. Ford’s, highlighting that she was campaigning on change for the better and characterizing her opponents as “bad or worse”.
On issues such as privatization, she lumped in the Liberals and Conservatives as two sides of the same coin. On issues such as police carding, she shared Premier Wynne’s conviction that it should be stopped with the added advantage of coming across as new energy, capable of more credibly promising a different outcome.
Rather than attack Liberal ideologies, she attacked Liberal action, positioning some of Premier Wynne’s stronger points as mere talk. Ultimately, this combination of consistent messaging and clear contrast from her opponents positioned her to leave the debate as a viable contestant for the province’s top job.
Predictions and Prognostication on Ontario Election 2018
By Jaime Watt
As Nate Silver, the skilled New York times prediction artist said after the 2016 Presidential Election, “we must become more comfortable with probability and uncertainty.”
This is going to be a blockbuster election. Anything can happen.
With that type of thinking in mind and on the eve of the writ dropping, I reflect on the question I’m often asked these days: if I were to advise each of the three leaders on how to best succeed in June – what strategy would I implement and why?
Here’s a quick take.
Let’s start with the governing Liberals: Wynne’s only chance at victory, other than a Mr. Ford internal implosion, is to veer sharply to the left. Hard to imagine I know.
Wynne needs to position herself as the force that believes in the opportunity for government to do good against a guy who just wants to cut. The person who will support your family when the going gets tough. It is, perhaps, the premier’s only shot: a left-wing coalition that supports a left-wing approach to policies. Seats in urban and Northern Ontario are the bulwark of that coalition.
On top of this, her team will need to rely heavily on advertising, both on television and on social media, attack advertising against Mr. Ford, so vicious, that even an American audience may even find it slightly off putting. There is room to attack – they just need to find the sweet spot. I have seen the ads, but will they be enough? Only time will tell.
Let move onto the New Democrats. Horwath and her team need to be ready for a Doug Ford screw-up. They need to be ready to pounce on swing Liberal voters.
To do so, she must position herself, on an individual level, as the people’s champion. She needs to speak the language of the everyday, hardworking Ontarian. She needs to advance a left-leaning approach to populism. She is the perfect pitch person for an approach to government that’s not based on ideology or dogma but rather on making people’s everyday lives better.
There are a lot of voters out there who have decided that regardless of what happens with the PCs they will not vote for the Liberals – Horwath needs to secure as many of these votes as possible. The alternative – these voters stay home. The worst-case scenario for Ms. Horwath.
Finally, for the PCs, it’s simple. Keep promising change that will make life affordable for everyday Ontarians. Savings, tax relief and no mention of job cuts. Perhaps most importantly, keep the social conservative chatter on mute.
Jaime Watt is the Executive Chairman of Navigator Ltd.
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