Observers agree that the NDP's Horwath won the first leaders' debate

NDP 2018 campaign kick-off, April 29, 2018. Photo: Joey Coleman/Flickr

The leaders of Ontario’s political parties, excluding the Greens, had their first televised debate on Monday evening, even though the election campaign does not start officially until later this week. Conservative leader Doug Ford looked nervous and tongue tied through a good part of the broadcast, while both Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath were comfortably articulate and in full command of the facts.

Being knowledgeable and confident did not, however, seem to do Wynne much good. That’s because she was, as might be expected, on the defensive for most of the evening. 

Even when Wynne might have had defensible positions, as she did on her government’s decisions to ban carding and support safe injection sites, it looked like she was playing catch-up. Horwath constantly reminded the premier that her party has been in power for a decade and a half, and they are only now focusing on many of the important issues raised in the debate.

If Horwath still has her doubters, even among those who consider themselves progressive, this debate should put an end to their doubts. While consistently and doggedly pushing key messages, such as “change for the better,” the NDP leader managed to sound candid, natural and conversational throughout the 90-minute event. 

Horwath was the only one of the leaders who managed to frame the issues in terms of voters’ daily lives. She repeatedly referred to childcare, dental care, long-term care for the elderly, “hallway medicine” (one of her favourite catch phrases) and the need for affordable housing. And she gave the clear impression that her party has policies to deal with them all, even if she did not go into details during the debate. 

When she went into attack mode, Horwath was especially effective on the privatization of Hydro One, the province’s supplier of electricity. Selling a big piece of Hydro One was a Liberal government decision that does not seem to have had any sound basis in public policy, other than to provide the Wynne government with a short-term injection of cash. 

Even mainstream media commentators have pointed out that it makes no sense to put a monopoly provider of an essential public service, such as electricity, into private hands. During the debate, Wynne did make the valid point that her government had to invest heavily in electrical infrastructure, because, for decades, successive governments of all parties had allowed it to languish. But Wynne did not even try to explain why it was necessary to sell a public utility in order to do so. 

Ford has made what he calls the “Hydro mess” into one of his favourite hobbyhorses. But the Conservative leader does not have much to say about electricity, except to engage in easy populist rants about the “six-million-dollar man”.  That man is Hydro One’s president, Mayo Schmidt, who does, indeed take home $6 million a year. 

Ford’s claims about budget cuts were, in his words, ‘disingenuous’

In the debate, Ford was best when he attacked Wynne for Liberal corruption and mismanagement. His strongest line of attack was to point out that Ontario is the most indebted subnational entity in the world. 

For a man who prides himself on being ultra plain-spoken, “subnational” seemed a bit of a wonky word choice. 

And that’s not the only time Ford exceeded the admittedly low linguistic expectations of him. More than once, the Conservative leader used the word “disingenuous” to push back against Wynne’s accusation that he plans to cut services to ordinary Ontarians in order to cut taxes for the wealthy.

Disingenuous might have been perfect choice of words, but not the way Ford meant it. It would be hard to conclude, in fact, that Ford himself was being anything but disingenuous when he claimed he would be able to cut government spending by 4 per cent without cutting a single job. And during the debate, Ford went further on that point than he has thus far. He positively enthused about how he “loves” teachers and nurses, and solemnly promised that no teachers or nurses would lose their jobs.

Wynne was relentless in pointing out that Ford could not be believed on the cuts issue. He will have to cut deeply, she insisted, and not just find efficiencies, in order to pay for the big tax cuts he promises. 

Horwath got the cleanest and hardest hit on Ford when she said that while other Ontario Conservative leaders such as Mike Harris and Tim Hudak were honest with Ontarians, and told them what cuts they planned, Ford did not have the guts to level with the Ontario people. 

Ford seemed a bit knocked off stride by Horwath’s tough words, but quickly turned back to his mantra about finding a mere 4 cents on every dollar the government spends.  

The Conservative leader’s worst moments were his opening statement, when he almost seemed to have forgotten what he planned to say, and the embarrassingly frequent points in the debate where he chose to remain utterly silent.

To journalists, Ford’s silence appeared awkward and embarrassing. It may, however, have been part of a plan. Conservatives and their cheerleaders seem to think Ford’s best route to victory is to say as little as possible. His goal should be to reassure voters that he is not dangerous or unbalanced. To that end, he must avoid saying anything that is too strident, angry, divisive or extreme. 

Given their big lead in all of the current public opinion polls, the Conservatives seem to have concluded that their best route to victory is to do as little as possible, sit back, and ride a wave of change to power. 

One winner, by almost universal assent

Andrea Horwath did her best in the first debate to upset the Conservatives’ frontrunner strategy. And if the instant analysis from the folks the sponsors of the debate, broadcaster City Toronto, spoke to is any indication, Horwath seems to have succeeded -- perhaps beyond her supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

The three-person team City Toronto assembled to do instant analysis tilted progressive. It included cannabis activist Jody Emery and Desmond Cole, a journalist, filmmaker and activist -- with Murtaza Haider, a professor of management and a transit expert, providing balance on the starboard side. All three agreed, without hesitation, that Horwath had by far the best performance of the evening. Haider was particularly impressed -- in his words, “pleasantly surprised” -- by the NDP leader’s nuanced, knowledgeable and realistic answers on the matter of Toronto’s public transit woes.

City also had on hand its own political analyst, veteran radio newsman John Stall, who did his best to declare Ford the winner -- based mostly on the fact that the Conservative leader did not do or say anything outrageous. The most complimentary thing Stall could find to say about the Conservative leader’s showing was that voters love banal Fordisms such as: “I’m for the little guy.”

But even Stall could not stop himself from being spontaneously and genuinely impressed by Horwath’s masterful presentation.

And so, in the end, while the City analyst had to admit that if Ford’s no-mistakes-no-surprises, but still uninspired, performance gave him the win, almost by default, maybe events will prove that Horwath was the real winner. 

Photo: Joey Coleman/Flickr

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