You’ve got to go back nearly three decades to find a time in Ontario politics when the New Democratic Party had so much at stake in a leaders’ debate.
It was the summer of 1990, and the public opinion surveys were saying some strange things — strange because never before had they suggested that the NDP might be poised for victory. (In fact, we’ve had 41 elections in 150 years of Ontario history, and only twice has government been formed by a party that wasn’t some version of the Liberals or the Progressive Conservatives.)
Back then, the public was in an angry mood — just as it is today. The Liberals had won the most seats in Ontario history, having captured 95 in 1987. However, that huge victory set expectations too high, and the Liberals couldn’t meet them. Unlike in previous elections, though, unhappy Liberal voters didn’t migrate to the Progressive Conservatives. The PCs were led by a guy named Mike Harris, who’d only just got the job, so the voters didn’t know him very well. And the Tories had been booted out of office just five years earlier, after 42 straight years in power. So the public wasn’t prepared to put the PCs back in with an untested leader.
So, many Ontarians thought, why not give this Bob Rae guy a chance? He’s on his third campaign as NDP leader. We know him. He had a good leaders’ debate. He seems okay.
That, plus the NDP’s incredible good fortune, enabled Rae to win a majority government with just 37.6 per cent of the popular vote.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should — because many of the same conditions seem to exist in 2018, too. Andrea Horwath is on her third campaign as leader. She has performed well above expectations so far. But there is one major test left: Sunday night’s leaders’ debate. And unlike in 2011 and 2014, Horwath will indisputably be in the hot seat this time around, as the other two leaders have surely realized this could be their last chance to knock her off her game.
Global TV’s Farah Nasser and I have the honour of co-moderating the final leaders’ debate of this campaign; it will air on TVO at 6:30 p.m. Sunday and will also be available for livestream viewing on TVO’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
The format of the debate will be somewhat different from what we’ve seen in previous years. For starters, the moderators will ask only three questions. Members of the public will ask six, two by video. And the leaders themselves will also be permitted to ask three questions of one another, which may well provide the debate with its liveliest moments.
Given that polls are saying Horwath has the momentum, you would think that both PC leader Doug Ford and Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne would use their questions to try to damage Horwath’s candidacy.
In the CityTV debate broadcast earlier this month, Ford asked Wynne, “When did you lose your way?” While it might have been a tough, pointed question that caused Wynne some discomfort, it was a misfire, strategically speaking. Wynne hasn’t been the right target for the Tories throughout this campaign. She has been in third place, and her numbers haven’t improved at all. Perhaps the Tories didn’t realize at the time that their real adversary in this campaign was the NDP. Horwath certainly understood that, however, as she used her question during the same debate to poke at Ford and not Wynne.
One advantage Ford will have in this debate is his position in the middle of the set. Just by turning his body, he can marginalize one leader while taking aim at the other. It’s likely, given what the polls are saying, that he’s been told to ignore Wynne and try to sow some doubts about a Horwath premiership.
So far, Horwath has managed to smile her way through more than two weeks of campaigning, having found a good balance between projecting a sunny exterior and stoking just the right amount of populist anger. A good debate performance from her Sunday night will go a long way toward making her bid to become Ontario’s 26th premier a success.
For the current premier, this debate is truly her last chance to make the case to Ontarians that she deserves another look. Eighty per cent of the electorate had decided before this campaign began that they wanted a new premier. They first kicked the tires on Ford and gave him a big lead. But so many disruptions in the PC campaign — from suspicions over the theft of Highway 407 personal data to an audio recording of Ford trying to sign up potential party members (while suggesting someone else would pay for their memberships) — have hindered Ford’s progress and knocked him down a peg.
So now people are checking out Horwath. They’ve liked what they’ve seen so far. Sunday’s debate likely represents Wynne’s last chance to expose Horwath’s shortcomings and force voters to conclude, “Well, maybe we should go back to the leader who, for all her faults, certainly knows the issues better than anyone else.”
If Wynne can’t create that doubt around Horwath and bring progressive voters back into the red tent, all indications are that she’ll lead her party to a catastrophic defeat, the likes of which the Ontario Liberals have never seen before.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The three leaders have their missions. Tune in Sunday night to see who comes out ahead.
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