In the final Ontario leaders’ debate, Wynne was dignified, Horwath feisty and Ford evasive

Photo: Andrea Horwath/ Twitter

The final Ontario leaders’ debate on Sunday evening, May 27, was maddening, at times, because Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Doug Ford kept making outrageous statements about the NDP. Aside from trying, not too effectively, to set the record straight by frequently interrupting, New Democratic leader Andrea Horwath did not entirely succeed in systematically demolishing Ford’s at times outlandish claims. 

Those claims included the fact that many NDP candidates are dangerous radicals, and that an NDP government would bring Ontario back to the pain and agony of the recession that hit the Bob Rae NDP government sideways in the 1990s.  

At one point, Horwath did snipe at Ford, “you don’t get to make up facts.” That did not stop the PC leader. Ford kept on, almost like an automaton, repeating his talking points. 

He’s for the little guy. He’s for the people, not government. Like Donald Trump, Ford is a successful businessman and so he knows how to solve problems and get results.  On and on, with neither nuance nor, for the most part, facts, Ford spouted slogans and talking points. He was almost oblivious to what anyone else, including his questioners, be they the hosts or members of the public, had to say.

A case in point: One citizen who had been chosen to put a question asked the PC leader if he believed global warming is real, and, if so, what he plans to do about it, given that he is opposed to cap-and-trade. 

Ford answered part of the question. He said he believes there is such a thing as global warming, and, yes, it is caused by humans.  (The PC leader might want to talk to his candidate in the Carleton riding about this. She does not agree with the human-caused part.) 

When it came to his own climate change plan, however, Ford had nothing to offer. He used up all his time declaiming about how terrible cap-and-trade or any other form of carbon tax is.

Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne and Horwath agree on cap-and-trade, so they did not have much to argue about on that score. Oddly, though, neither tried to hold Ford’s feet to the fire by pointing out that he had totally avoided the citizen’s question. That citizen did take note, and he was not pleased, as he told a CBC reporter after the debate. At least one determined reporter shouted the climate change question, clearly and repeatedly at Ford during the post-debate scrum, but Ford blithely ignored it.

Liberals and New Democrats are political cousins

Wynne and Horwath agree on more than just cap-and-trade. Their positions on a great many issues are similar, if not identical. The Liberals offer free childcare from the age of two-and-a half to four (when kids can go to pre-kindergarten, a Wynne government innovation). The NDP offers childcare starting at birth, but at a low cost, rather than free.  

Wynne made much of the fact that the NDP childcare proposal does not include for-profit day care centres, only public and not-for-profit ones. Horwath said she does not believe anyone should profit from taking care of children. Wynne countered by arguing that there are some very high-quality, small, independent day care operations that would do a good job, if given a chance, and that the NDP’s objection was ideological and not practical.

That was, indeed, a major theme for Wynne. The Liberals and New Democrats share many values and goals, she said, only the Liberals take a more problem-solving, practical approach while the NDP is too ideological. That word, ideological, was one of Wynne’s favourite epithets during her exchanges with Horwath.

Wynne’s strongest attack on Horwath focused on the NDP’s pledge to never use back-to-work legislation. The Liberal leader used the current support-staff strike at York University as a case in point. She complained that the NDP had used parliamentary procedure to prevent the government from ordering the striking workers back onto the job. Wynne claimed that position showed the NDP is too beholden to unions.

Horwath parried that she was surprised to hear this line of attack from Wynne, not from Ford. On the substance of the issue, Horwath’s argument was if government invested sufficiently in public services such as education strikes such as the one at York would not be necessary.

The NDP leader gave credit to Wynne for her government’s overhaul of labour law, Bill 148, which it passed in 2017. Bill 148 will go far toward ending the situation of precarious work a great many Ontario workers experience. For instance, the new law curtails the practice of employers circumventing labour laws by classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Still, Horwath remarked bitingly, the government itself continues to impose precarious work conditions on many public-sector workers.

On this issue Wynne wants to have it both ways. She wants to be considered pro-labour and pro-union. But she also wants to say that there are limits to what unions can do, and that the public interest comes first. 

There was a comical moment during the back-to-work portion of Sunday’s debate. At one point, while Wynne and Horwath were going after each other, one of the moderators turned to Ford and gave him a chance to weigh in. Ford must have been daydreaming right then. He seemed caught off guard. This would have been a golden opportunity for him to, yet again, attack the dangerous and radical NDP, which, if elected, will drive every self-respecting Ontario business to the U.S. Instead, when Ford woke up and realized he had to say something, he just repeated his canned talking points. One got the impression he had been paying no attention. He was like a kid caught reading a comic book in class who, when asked a question, just blurts out any old thing.

Ford makes up facts and refuses to provide a platform

The issue on which Horwath accused Ford of inventing facts out of whole cloth was that of the president of Hydro One’s $6 million salary. The PC leader tried to argue that the NDP had been, in some way, either complicit in this scandal, or, at least, acquiescent to it. 

Liberal leader Wynne found the electricity issue to be awkward, but did her best to make a case for her decision to privatize part of Ontario’s electric generation capacity. The Liberal leader said her purpose had been to free up funds to invest in needed infrastructure. Horwath scoffed at that. She pointed out that the money in question is in a trust fund and has not been spent on anything. 

Horwath’s more telling blow to Wynne came when she pointed out the Liberals’ hypocrisy on the decision to privatize Hydro One. 

"I was there the day in the Legislature when you said to my face that you wouldn't sell off Hydro One.” Horwath said to Wynne. “Then what did you do a few months later? Started selling off Hydro One."

The leader who was most evasive throughout, however, was Ford. 

The PC leader has not released anything resembling a costed platform, while he persists in making promises that do not add up. How do you institute more than six billion dollars in tax cuts, end hallway medicine, institute pharmacare for seniors, lower hydro rates, bring back a dollar a bottle beer, and balance the books, without laying off a single teacher or nurse or public servant? 

When asked to explain how he will achieve any of his big promises, Ford resorts to saying he would consult with front-line workers. That’s what he said when asked about his health care promises. Wynne landed a devastating blow when she said consulting with front-line workers is what a leader does before crafting a platform. Once those consultations have happened and the platform has been crafted, then the leader presents it, respectfully, to the public. Ford had no response to this carefully aimed argument. He just grinned, almost sheepishly. To this viewer, it was a near knock-out blow.

Throughout the debate, Wynne was confident, clear and candid. Much more than in the first two debates, the Liberal leader made a point of taking on Horwath, who pollsters tell us has the momentum. But, as in her parry to Ford on his meaningless promise to consult frontline health workers, Wynne was most devastating in her attacks on the PC leader. 

Those attacks might have the end result of helping Horwath and the New Democrats, not the governing Liberals. Wynne certainly knows that. Unlike some in her party, however, Wynne does not seem to be wishing for a Ford victory, with the Liberals hanging on to a respectable third place finish -- on the theory that the party could always charge back to power under a new leader next time, as did the federal Liberals in 2015. 

Wynne seems to recognize that a Ford government would be bad, even dangerous, for Ontario. And she knows that Horwath’s NDP would, in considerable measure, carry on her legacy. The Liberal leader is conducting herself accordingly, and that is all to her honour.  

Photo: Andrea Horwath/Twitter

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