How Andrea Horwath is approaching her last chance to win an election

ANALYSIS: The NDP are calling it their strongest campaign ever — but with the Tories so far ahead in the polls, John Michael McGrath asks whether it will be enough
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 4, 2018
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath
The New Democrats have just over a month to convince voters that they’re the most palatable option to form government after June 7. (Chris Donovan/CP)

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​If the provincial election were held today, Andrea Horwath would almost certainly not still be NDP leader for her 10th anniversary on the job in 2019. Instead, her party would perhaps marginally increase its seat count at Queen’s Park but remain in third place. Horwath, unlikely to retain the party’s support after a third defeat, would probably be replaced as leader early next year.

But the election is not being held today.

The New Democrats have just over a month to convince voters that they’re the most palatable option to form government after June 7, and they’ve built a team that includes key players from past NDP victories outside Ontario to seal the deal. The senior campaign team is led by Michael Balagus, a veteran of the Manitoba NDP’s time in government (who was only briefly sidelined earlier this year due to his involvement in a sexual-misconduct case back in Winnipeg), and also includes imports from John Horgan’s winning campaign in British Columbia and Rachel Notley’s in Alberta. The team also includes Brad Lavigne and Kathleen Monk, both of Jack Layton’s 2011 “Orange wave,” which put the NDP in the official opposition benches in Ottawa.

“I’ve managed third- and fourth-term campaigns in government, and I can smell a change election when it’s coming,” Balagus told reporters at the NDP campaign office in Etobicoke on Thursday. The party’s pitch to voters is simple: a vote for Horwath is a vote for change, but not for the potentially chaotic kind of change that Doug Ford represents.

The NDP have an unapologetically progressive platform and a leader who’s a relatively known quantity, while as of this writing the Tories have no platform and a leader whose record in public office contains more incidents of disruptive bellicosity than substantial achievements.

The Liberals, for their part, will pass a provincial budget next week that will form the core of their re-election bid, and their leader is a historically strong campaigner — even if she’s also currently the least popular premier in the country.

The New Democrats this week unveiled their first campaign advertisement — unlike the Liberal ads attacking Doug Ford, the NDP spot won’t run on TV before the campaign formally begins Wednesday — a light-hearted poke at their adversaries that includes people being pelted with dodgeballs.

If the June 7 election is being framed — including by Premier Kathleen Wynne herself — as effectively a re-run of the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, then the New Democrats are testing the “Bernie Sanders would have won” hypothesis, offering voters an option for progressive change.

It might not work. After several years of watching the Liberals move left (or, as the NDP describe it, of stealing their ideas), the electorate may decide a hard turn right is what the province needs. Or the NDP may simply not be able to close the gap it faces: the party has less cash to spend than either of its opponents, and the Tories have a daunting lead in the polls.

And some of the NDP’s problems come from within: a scandal has been bubbling away in Hamilton, where several New Democrat MPPs are facing complaints at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for their treatment of political staff. Paul Miller, the MPP for Hamilton East–Stoney Creek, is accused of routinely making “racist, sexist and homophobic comments” in his constituency office. Whether any of this will register with voters in the NDP stronghold is an open question.

Voters are going to get substantial early exposure to all the parties in this election. Aside from the natural burst of political coverage that goes with the beginning of any campaign, this election will also see two televised debates early on: first on the evening of May 7, and then the following Wednesday, when there will be a debate in Parry Sound on northern issues.

If the NDP is going to have any hope of poaching supporters from the Liberals or the Tories — and they’re going to need at least some from both if they want to form government — they’ll need to see some movement in the opinion polls after that second debate. Is the PCs’ grip on their supporters solid, or have voters simply been parking their support with the party that looks like the natural option to replace the government? Can the NDP present themselves as a realistic option for change, or are orange visions just dreaming in Technicolor?

The NDP’s own history shows that a lot can happen in a campaign: federally, Thomas Mulcair went into the 2015 election favoured in most polls only to see Justin Trudeau’s Liberals come from third place to eventually form government. Trudeau beat Mulcair by nearly 20 points in the popular vote.

In effect, Horwath’s party is betting that history can repeat itself — only with some of the labels changed.

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