The former dark horse can run away with the prize

NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s solid performance in last Sunday’s debate confirms the new trend: the NDP has progressed from being the dark horse to emerging as the frontrunner in the race to form the next provincial government of Ontario.

Meanwhile, incumbent Premier Kathleen Wynne is steadying her Liberal Party’s position. As a debater, she was the strongest of the three leaders in terms of policy and knowledge of the files. But, it will be difficult for her and her team to overcome the electorate’s palpable desire for change.

Premier Wynne was also at a loss to counter the burning question constantly thrown at her by Horwath, some commentators and the wider public: If the Liberals’ new policies are so good, why were they not introduced and implemented much earlier in the government’s term of office?

With that challenge to her party’s credibility, the controversial sale of another thick slice of government’s ownership in Hydro One, and her personal unpopularity, it remains clear that her party still has a steep road ahead.

As for Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford, both the NDP and the Liberal leaders can take comfort in his lackluster showing in that third and last Leaders Debate of the current election campaign.

Moreover, while Ford appears not to be losing any support among his firm 30 per cent of the persons eligible to vote, he is losing momentum in his drive to expand his acceptability outside of his core. It is also to be noted that he has less room to increase his party’s share of the electoral pie.

But it is important to point out that debates generally do not have any substantial effect on the outcome of elections. Debates only matter if they produce knock-out punches or major scandals. And there were none of those in Sunday’s debate.

Most of the attacks were directed against Horwath, for the obvious reason that she and her party have been emerging in the polls as the new frontrunners, showing significant growth in their popularity.

In that regard, only one of those attacks is likely to carry any weight: when Kathleen Wynne accused her NDP rival of being beholden to the public sector labour unions, did this Liberal leader stop to consider whether she might be stirring up a hornet’s nest of bees that could come back to bite her?

Was she aware of the double-edged sword that she was wielding?

On the one hand, significant numbers of voters might like the Liberal leader’s determination to use back-to-work legislation whenever a protracted strike was threatening the interests of vulnerable parties or even of the society at large.

On the other hand, the labour unions and their sympathizers might stir up a strong anti- Liberal reaction, leading up to election day. These angry voters can use their votes to condemn the Liberals for depriving the workers of their most powerful defence tool: the right to withhold their labour when faced with grossly unfair or abusive treatment from the employers

While Horwath and Wynne stood up to the points made against them, Ford was the one who fared worst in the heated exchanges. He had no worthwhile answer when Wynne and Horwath punished him for not being honest and responsible enough towards the voters:  he had failed to provide a detailed policy platform that spelled out the costing and the funding sources for his policy proposals.

In re-iterating Horwath’s insistence that Ford’s  six billion dollars of efficiencies could only mean six billion dollars of cuts in jobs and services, Wynne asked the audience :

“What would happen to your school under a Doug Ford government? What would happen to your hospital under a Doug Ford government? And what would happen to every service you depend on under a Doug Ford government?”

Similarly, Horwath got no coherent response from Ford to the reports that one of his party’s former candidates and several other PC candidates had benefitted from the use of stolen customer data. It was alleged that the former candidate had stolen the data while he was employed by the company which owns and operates Highway 407.

If there are no major upsets as the leaders head to the home stretch, the former dark horse, Andrea Horwath seems set to run away with the prize.