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Fear of Hudak may tip Ontario election to Wynne

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“In a very real sense, a vote for Andrea Horwath is a vote for Tim Hudak” – Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, writing in the Toronto Star, June 8.

There, in a nutshell, is the issue that will, in my view, determine the outcome as the ugly Ontario election campaign -- a wretched excuse for a democratic exercise -- lurches to a finish this week. Someone will win on Thursday, although it can be argued that no one deserves to win. 

For the Liberals, who seem to have a bit of wind in their sails in the closing days, the key to success is fear -- fear of what would happen to Ontario if Progressive Conservative leader Hudak (the man with “The Plan”) comes to power. For Wynne, this fear is a tool to make sure her Liberal supporters turn out to vote. And the same fear is a weapon to persuade wavering New Democrats to jump to the Liberals or, failing that, to stay home on Thursday lest they split the anti-Hudak vote.

Wynne did not mince words as she addressed voters in her Toronto Star commentary: “Like you, I am convinced that if Tim Hudak is given the slightest opportunity, he will destroy and dismantle so much of what you and I care about in this province.”

Strong stuff that, but this has been an election scarred by negative emotions -- loathing of the Liberal legacy of scandals pitted against fear of the Hudak alternative. From this vantage point, it seems that fear may trump loathing.

I think Hudak made two mistakes. He played the scandal card too hard and too long without managing to convince very many Ontarians that Kathleen Wynne was culpable for the scandals that occurred on Dalton McGuinty’s watch. People wearied of all the scandal talk.

Second, Hudak bet his political future on his “million-jobs plan” -- a economic plan that experts panned and that Hudak himself was never able to explain to anyone’s satisfaction. All that the average voter could see was that Hudak planned to fire 100,000 public sector employees, reduce some essential services, cut taxes on corporations and somehow pay off the deficit. It made no economic or political sense.

The NDP’s Andrea Horwath also made two mistakes. Having joined forces with Hudak to defeat the Liberal budget, she did not have an exit strategy to disengage her party from the Tories once the campaign began; she found herself playing second fiddle to Hudak’s attacks on Liberal scandals. Second, and more important, she lost her political bearings. By moving to the right (traditionally barren ground for socialist parties), she allowed Wynne to take over the entire left and centre-left of the spectrum.

The pollsters and pundits remain confused. Most pundits, though not all, declared Hudak the winner of last week’s leaders’ debate. He and Horwath kept Wynne on the defensive throughout the 90-minute encounter. Hudak stayed on message and he performed better than most pundits had expected him to. But he did not come across as being as likeable as the besieged Wynne or even the aggressive Horwath, who lived up to her “Steeltown Scrapper” nickname.

It wasn’t much of a debate, and it failed to address such important issues as health care. In the end, I thought Hudak lost. He played well to his base, but he did not broaden it. He failed to dispel the perception that he can hardly wait to start slashing and burning at Queen’s Park. Kathleen Wynne comes across as a more sympathetic political leader, and that’s worth something at the polls.

The opinion polls are still unclear. There seems, however, to be some movement -- although not a stampede, to be sure -- towards the Liberals. Seat projections suggest another Liberal minority with a majority government perhaps being within the realm of possibility. If enough voters agree that a vote for Horwath is the same as a vote for Hudak, Kathleen Wynne will have a very pleasant Thursday evening.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His column appears every Monday in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

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