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                  Leaders' Debate 2014: A Political Tightrope Act

 


By Susanna Kelley 

The leaders' debate scheduled for Tuesday night will not only be one of the most important events of the 2014 Ontario election campaign.

In an election where absolutely nothing is certain and just about anything is possible, a good performance by one of the leaders can define who the campaign winner will be and put the final nails in the coffins of the other parties. 

On the other hand, the debate being so late this election - just nine days before Election Day - there will be no opportunity for correcting a bad performance.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath and PC leader Tim Hudak have the advantage of having debated before, in 2011. Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne  is the rookie.

The campaign has provided its share of major mistakes and dramas unfolding before us. With that in mind, here is my take on what each of the leaders must do strategically in the debate, in front of the highest audience of the campaign.

(Please note I'm talking purely political strategy here, not policy worth.)

 

Kathleen Wynne: 

Ms. Wynn will have to defend her self from charges by both Mr. Hudak and Ms. Wynne that the Liberals have run a corrupt government beset by scandals. 

And there are many. They include of course the $1 billion gas plants fiasco with its examples of a troubling Liberal trend: the chronic misuse of public funds for pure political gain.  Paying $190 million to eight U.S. hedge funds to make the gas plants go away - a ludicrous amount - is top of mind.

(By the way, the gas plants scandal is certainly not the biggest in Canadian, or even Ontario history, as has been claimed. The cost overruns of building the Darlington nuclear generating station in the PC Bill Davis era dwarf the gas plants cost. Darlington ballooned from an estimated original cost of $3.4 billion cost to over $14.4 billion at completion, due in good part to many stops (mothballing) and starts, for political reasons.)

In addition the Liberal government stands accused of using public funds to award huge salaries to its political cronies (eHealth and ORNGE); a Nixonian wiping of 24 computer hard drives in the Premier's Office at the behest of Dalton McGuinty's Chief of Staff - David Livingston; and a potential new scandal involving the purchase of the building that houses the MaRS project in Toronto.

PC leader Mr. Hudak will also weigh in to charge that Ms. Wynne's economic policies aren't working and her government is at fault for a stubbornly high unemployment rate amongst young graduates who possess record numbers of post-secondary degrees and diplomas. 

Ms. Horwath will, if her recent strategy of going negative holds true, try to make the debate about corruption at Queen's Park.

Ms. Wynne's best debate strategy:  She could mock Mr. Hudak's failure to notice the major economic and math mistakes in his main plank, the Million Jobs Plan, and the resulting criticisms by left, centre and right-wing economists that consequently, it will create no such thing.

She can highlight her made-in-Ontario pension plan to attract left, center and swing voters who fear for their retirement without it - and that's a lot of people with two-thirds of Ontarians having no workplace pension plan.

Finally, she can stir the pot for the NDP by continuing to chastise Ms. Horwath for deep-sixing what many are calling a highly progressive budget, and for deferring her support for an Ontario-made pension plan until after the 2015 federal election, if then.  

 

Tim Hudak:  

The major attacks on Mr. Hudak will likely be that, as mentioned, his main campaign plank - the Million Jobs Plan - has just blown up.

The major economic and math mistake in the Million Jobs Plan calculations has put Mr. Hudak in a very difficult position.

Admit the mistake and he admits his central plank is wrong; deny it and he looks disingenuous.

Mr. Hudak may well echo the recent damage control spin line being used by the Tories: that the actual million job promise isn't really important, never was, the platform's economic policies behind will create some number of jobs, and that's all that counts ...

It's hard to see that this messaging will actually work when "Million Jobs Plan" is plastered all over every leaflet, candidate signs, online, TV, radio and print commercials, and, of course, the side of the PC campaign bus. Not sure they have time to change the slogan to the "The, Um, Some Number Of Jobs Plan."

He will also be under attack for his plans to cut 100,000 public service jobs, which has frightened a lot of voters and has the potential of driving people to the Liberals to stop Mr. Hudak.

(The Tory spinmeisters' recent claim that their main campaign strategy is to ensure their core doesn't stay home is hard to believe - any party that goes into a campaign with the main aim to motivate their base, rather than grow the vote, is doomed to lose in Ontario as none have a core big enough to form even a minority government. Mr. Hudak's campaign team is smarter than that.) 

Mr. Hudak's best strategy: With his options now limited by the Million Jobs Plan's implosion, his best shot is to divert, divert, divert and try to change the channel.

By default, Mr. Hudak must go back to his focus on corruption within the Liberal Party. Mindful that governments usually defeat themselves, an effective attack would be to exploit Ms. Wynne's inherent weakness - that she heads a government that has been and may still be acting corruptly.

The only problem with this is the NDP has taken over this campaign real estate of late.  

 

Andrea Horwath:

For some strange reason understood only by Ms. Horwath and her inner circle, the NDP has never put forward that single coherent, major, signature policy plank that every campaign needs if it is to be successful.  Ms. Wynne has the pension plan; Mr. Hudak has - or had - jobs.

There have been plenty of opportunities to put a major policy forward but all have been squandered - from the traditional press conference inside the budget lockup that Ms. Horwath spurned, to the next day's announcement that the party would bring down the budget, to dropping the platform late, and frankly, any day in between. 

This has made her vulnerable to attacks by both the Liberals and the Tories.

Instead, Ms. Horwath has gone negative, focusing instead on Liberal corruption and using the "cuts" rhetoric of a Hudak Tory.  

Ms. Horwath is also wounded by a campaign team that seems to have deliberately deep sixed one of Ms. Horwath's key strengths: her likeability and penchant for reasonableness.

The unfocused nature of her campaign and her decision to pull the plug on the budget left her vulnerable to attacks from the left as we've seen  - the infamous letter from The Gang of 34 and a stinging op ed by party stalwart Gerry Caplan.

The strategy of playing to PC-NDP vote switchers was taken too far and has backfired with some activists on the left, who may vote Liberal to stop Mr. Hudak.

All this will make for easy pickings for both Ms. Wynne and Mr. Hudak in the debate as they both attack her for these errors.

Ms. Horwath's best strategy:

The debate offers Ms. Horwath one last, best opportunity to lure the undecideds and those not enamoured with any of the choices.   

She should let her naturally sunny personality out, and ditch the pursed lips seriousness that marred her delivery on day one of the campaign, when she announced the NDP would not support the budget, and in the Northern debate.

It is likely too late now to announce that new, major, single policy that her campaign has needed. 

Ms. Horwath must to knock it out of the park in the debate to dissipate the anger of some on the left and convince them to hold their noses and vote NDP.

The leaders' debate is her last, best chance.

But so it is for each of the leaders.  

There will be no more second chances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 : May 24, 2014

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
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