A respectful debate

What have Ontarians gained from the first public match-up featuring the province’s three political musketeers?

There was no fire and brimstone. There were few, if any, developments that caused a significant shift in voters’ opinions.

But the Ontario Provincial Leaders debate had a respectful and courteous tone that contrasted sharply with the viciousness and personal attacks that pass for political discourse beyond Canada’s southern border.

Many analysts expressed the view that NDP leader Andrea Horwath “won” last Monday’s televised debate, that Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne performed quite well and that Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford was surprisingly successful in avoiding any major miss-steps.

It was logical that Doug Ford (as the front-runner in the opinion polls) and Kathleen Wynne (as the current Premier) became the targets of most of the attacks. These two gladiators clashed repeatedly.

Andrea Horwath deployed her combative skills to take the high ground with her timely and pointed reminders to the audience, suggesting that her NDP’ers should be voted in to power, not the Liberals or the Conservatives. No doubt, for her, the Liberals were bad and the Progressive Conservatives would be worse. Her punch-line was:

 “You don’t have to choose between bad and worse.”

Premier Wynne frequently chose to ignore Andrea Horwath’s’ new-found political charms. Addressing her Progressive Conservative rival directly, she charged:

 “There’s a very stark contrast that people are going to see in this election. It’s a contrast between a [Liberal] care plan and a [Progressive Conservative] cut plan…It is not possible to cut $6-billion out of services and not hurt people.”

And Doug Ford stuck to his script: “I’m for the little guy’; the Liberals are wasteful experts in over-taxing the people and over-spending the people’s money; the Progressive Conservatives will be experts in lowering taxes, in showing transparency, in practicing accountability and in saving money by identifying “efficiencies” in expenditure.

Unfortunately for him, both of his rivals kept swinging the corrective rod. He must have bristled at Andrea Horwath’s potshot: “What you call efficiencies is cuts.”

But at the end of it all, what have Ontarians gained from the debate?

What have the three contending political parties gained?

Unless there are killer blows against a candidate or a party, unless there are major revelations of scandalous conduct, elections are not decided by the outcome of debates.

Elections are generally decided by at least one of a wide range of issues.

Which candidate or party has trust and credibility, in the eyes of the voters?

Which segments of the society come out to vote? How many persons from each of those segments come out to vote?

What is the percentage of voter turnout in certain key ridings?

How many persons vote overall?

What percentage of voters cast their ballots out of anger, frustration, desperation, fear or hope?

How long has the ruling party been in power?

Which party has candidates who are celebrities, prominent persons or experienced leaders?

And, more specifically, which candidates get the support of the young people, the women, the ethno-cultural communities, the large urban centres and/or the rural communities?

The Progressive Conservatives have the positive momentum and the psychological advantage of being the front-runners in the opinion polls. They are further strengthened by the low popularity of Premier Kathleen Wynne and the possibility that the electorate may be leaning towards a desire for change after fifteen years of Liberal rule. But they are also weighted down by their reputation for budget cuts that punish the vulnerable segments of the society dependant on social programs; their failure to produce a detailed and clearly costed policy manifesto; the scandals surrounding the personal and political conduct of some of their leading personalities; and their extremist intolerance of diverse communities (including the LBGTQ 2community).

On their side, the Liberals have the grit and seasoned campaign skills of their feisty leader; the multitude of caring social policies recently announced in health care, housing and child care; and the massive investments in infrastructure being offered in their existing budget proposals.

For their part, the NDP is seeing a resurgence in its popularity ratings, mainly at the expense of the Liberals. In addition to the attractiveness of its social programs, the public image of its leader is perhaps the best, both inside and outside of the debate. On the down side, it remains weakened by its reputation as a left-wing party in a predominantly centrist society. The fact that it does not enjoy the automatic support of the labour unions is another of its challenges. It is also prone to falling victim to the strategic vote.

Which of these three alternatives is best placed to cater for the interests of the Black and Caribbean communities?

Certainly not the Progressive Conservatives.