Why Ontario’s party leaders offer voters the starkest choice they’ve ever had to make

By Steve Paikin - Published on April 6, 2018
Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford, and Andrea Horwath
Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford, and Andrea Horwath have until June 7 to make their case to voters. (Justin Tang/Frank Gunn/CP; Fred Lum/G&M)

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Ontario’s June 7 general election will be the 10th I’ve had the pleasure of covering as a reporter. But I suspect you could go back another 10 elections beyond that and still not find a showdown featuring leaders as starkly different as the ones hoping to gain your trust over the next two months.

Let’s start by taking a look at the leaders of the two largest parties — the parties that have formed 39 of the past 41 governments in Ontario. Can you imagine two more different politicians?

Kathleen Wynne is a passionate believer in social justice who started her political career at the school-board level. Conservative education reforms under former premier Mike Harris so angered her that she took the plunge into public life and has never let up.

Wynne eventually moved into the provincial arena in 2003, then she had successful stints with four different cabinet portfolios: education, transportation, municipal affairs and housing, and Aboriginal affairs (as it was then called).

She parlayed her superior knowledge of issues and just the right dose of “nice” into a Liberal leadership win in 2013, succeeding Dalton McGuinty. Wynne makes no bones about the kind of Liberal she is. She believes in government as a force for good; she believes in increasing public services; and, as last week’s budget clearly indicated, she has planted her flag firmly in the camp of those she feels need the most help getting through life.

If you wanted to come up with a foil for Wynne, you could scarcely dream up someone more fitting than Doug Ford. While Wynne was protesting the Harris government and starting her political career, Ford was in the private sector, helping run the family business, eventually expanding operations to Chicago. He got into municipal politics in Toronto eight years ago, not by championing more public services, but rather with a motto of “respect for taxpayers” and a desire to “stop the gravy train.”

Ford makes no pretense of the fact that he doesn’t know the first thing about many of the most pressing issues in provincial politics today — and his supporters don’t care one bit. While Wynne could probably give you an impressive dissertation on the top 30 issues the government faces, Ford really can’t go beyond the platitudes like “Ontario will be open for business”; “We're going to find efficiencies and that's how we're going to save the money,” or  “respect for taxpayers.”

When Ford appeared on The Agenda after his victory in the PC party leadership race, I asked him whether he knew enough about this province outside of Toronto, and he confessed that he wasn’t quite there but that he had learned a lot during his short time on the leadership hustings. Mind you, when I asked him where Atikokan was (just west of Thunder Bay), he admitted that he had no idea.

If the next election were a contest to determine who knew more stuff, it would be a slam dunk for Wynne. But elections are never about who knows the most stuff, and Ford has, from time to time, come across as endearing and relatable to the average person partly due to his lack of knowledge of some of the most basic information about what Queen’s Park does.

Of course, it’s not just Wynne and Ford that are in contention to be premier. Add to this mix the leader of the NDP, Andrea Horwath, who falls somewhere in the middle of the Wynne-Ford continuum. She can claim knowledge of how government works and outsider status at the same time. Horwath has been in politics for 20 years (as with Ford, her first political job was at the municipal level), so she certainly has a strong sense of how the game is played. She’s been NDP leader for nine years and has led the troops into two elections already — giving her much more experience than Ford has. But unlike Wynne, Horwath has never been in government, has never run anything, really, and has never had to make the kinds of decisions that add barnacle after barnacle to the ship of state.

Since last week’s budget, Wynne has been road-testing some themes that we will surely hear more about in the weeks to come. She will unapologetically make the case for big government, “damn the torpedoes” spending, and more services — all in her impassioned style, reminding voters what she thinks we owe one another.

Ford, conversely, is going to promise to lay waste to the Liberal agenda; his speeches will be replete with populist jargon, and he will go for the jugular. The wild card could be Horwath, whom the electorate likes — although not enough so far to move the NDP out of third place. Does Horwath focus on outflanking Wynne on big government? Or will she also tap into that outsider sentiment Ford is feeding off of?

The players are in place. The choices have never been starker.

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