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                               The Computer Scandal And A Spring Election:

                             Why It's Not Necessarily A Done Deal

 By Susanna Kelley

All manner of Queen's Park politicians, pundits and just plain political junkies have recently been convinced a spring election is now almost inevitable.

They cite information contained in a released OPP court document that alleges the hard  drives of 24 computers belonging to Dalton McGuinty's staff were wiped sometime during  the transition period from Dalton McGuinty to Kathleen Wynne as Premier.

Even more importantly, the police have stated Mr. McGuinty's former Chief of Staff,  David Livingston, may be guilty of breach of trust.

Andrea Horwath cannot possibly be seen to be propping up such a corrupt government, the thinking goes, and she will be politically, if not morally, forced to vote with the Tories to help defeat Kathleen Wynne's budget in several weeks and cause the government to fall.

There's a lot to be said for this analysis.

After all, all three parties are running neck and neck and neck in the polls, so close that, given the margin of error, any one of them can win.

Further, it's not often that party leaders get to throw around the allegation of "criminal acts" in the Premier's Office during an election campaign.

And the NDP has done well in a run of by-elections, winning four of the seven since the last general election in 2011.

Good polls, an alleged criminal scandal and the NDP on a roll: the pressure on Andrea Horwath to pull the plug would seem to be enormous.

 

 

Let's put aside the morality of it all for a moment and look at it purely from a political strategy point of view.

Consider this: is the wiping of the 24 computer hard drives, which has sent the parties and the media at Queen's Park into overdrive, actually making an impact with the public?

How much is the average person on the street - those whose vote actually determines an election outcome - cognizant of the story?

In order for a scandal to really make a dent in the public consciousness - other than with the chattering classes - it has to be the lead story on Internet news sites, radio and television news broadcasts and the front pages of newspapers for a long time.

Everyone, for example, knows about "Toronto's crack smoking mayor" Rob Ford.

That's because the story has had saturation coverage for more than a year.

So far, this story hasn't had that even for two weeks. A few days as the lead story on some Internet news sites and the front pages of some newspapers. Otherwise, way down the Internet site pages and buried on A4 or farther back in the newspapers.

Which usually doesn't cut it when it comes to making people really aware of a story.

The Toronto Star recently reported a Forum poll saying they are.

But when I started asking people outside the political realm not just what they had heard about the computer story, but whether they'd heard about it at all, almost no one had.

That may shock and depress those of us who live and breathe politics and political journalism, but if true, there is less political pressure on Ms. Horwath than some have said.

I'm told there is some polling evidence that the waste of money, such as from the cancellations of the Oakville and Mississauga gas plants, has some impact.

But try explaining this in two sentences:

"The police allege Dalton McGuinty's former chief of staff could be responsible for a government password having been improperly given out to allow another staffer's boyfriend to wipe 24 computer hard drives - possibly because they may have contained scandalous e-mails about the cancellation of the two plants in 2011 that cost over a billion dollars. Or something else, which might even be worse. Four of the computers were wiped while Mr. McGuiinty was still Premier. But the staffer's boyfriend had the password until well into the next month, which was after Kathleen Wynne was sworn in. Also, the gas plant cancellations are scandalous even though the PCs and NDP promised to cancel them too. Which likely would have still cost around a billion dollars as well ...

It's just so wrong, see?"

Yikes.

You get the idea - it's a pretty twisted path you are asking the public to follow to see something scandalous.

Which is not at all to say that it's not scandalous. 

Rather it's just pretty complicated for Ms. Horwath to explain to the public as the justification for forcing an early election, which is something the public seldom wants.

The public was outraged about a $16 glass of orange juice, which ended the political career of federal Conservative minister Bev Oda. That's because they know a glass of orange juice shouldn't cost that much in the real world. 

Or that Mike Duffy had the pubic pay for his mortgage, and Pam Wallin used public dollars for airplane flights not related to Senate business. No one else is paying for the public's trips, so people get that too, and are furious.

But it's harder for the public to relate to a million or a billion dollars - because at some point it just becomes a number and they've never had that kind of money.

At this point that one simple, outrageous act - that $16 glass of orange juice - that the public can relate to, and which can be easily explained, hasn't surfaced in the gas plant scandal.

Tim Hudak tried it, and in the process, publicly leapt to conclusions that got him slapped with a notice of libel by Kathleen Wynne - a clever move by Ms.Wynne, whose survival depends upon the public believing she is not Dalton McGuinty. For who would sue for libel if they were truly guilty of what is being alleged?

Besides, Ms. Horwath has a fallback position - she can continue her call for a public inquiry into the matter.

Every day Ms. Wynne puts between the computer wiping revelations and an election, the more she betters her party's chances of being returned to power. 

Should she somehow be able to put off an election until after this summer's vacation, people may forget about the issue.

 

 

The Premier has shown herself to be an aggressive and clever strategist in this situation and others.

Her political acumen has placed an Ontario pension plan, transit and infrastructure on the public agenda.

Meanwhile Mr. Hudak's "Million Jobs" theme taps into the palpable unease about the economy.

And Ms. Horwath's emphasis on making life affordable for the middle class appeals to a group going more and more into debt to finance their everyday expenses.

Any of these could end up being the ballot question - or something else that arises during the writ period.

It is not at all clear at this point that the gas plant scandal has made the dent in the public consciousness the opposition parties banked on after two years of hammering the government on it.

So at this point, it is still not clear that it would pay off for Ms. Horwath to call an election over it.

If that's not the case, she risks the voters' wrath for calling an unwanted election.

It may be best for the province in many ways to have an election now, and Ontario still may be going to the polls this spring for other reasons.

But strategically, it's not clear at all the computer drive wiping has now made that inevitable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : April 14, 2014

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
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