The big test of the debate in the Ontario election is yet to come for the four party leaders when they square off in the campaign’s only provincially televised showdown next Monday night.
Meanwhile, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner will all try to learn from Tuesday’s low-key debate. focused on northern Ontario.
Here’s what Tuesday’s event revealed about each leader’s debate strengths and weaknesses and what they’ll need to accomplish when the eyes of the whole province are on them next week.
As the incumbent and current favourite, according to the CBC News Ontario Poll Tracker, Ford has the most to lose in the debates, so its overriding mission is simply not to stumble. The main goal is not to provide clips in which he looks bad that are amplified to a wider audience on TV, radio and online.
Ford’s strategy for doing this seems to be to not bite his opponents when they slam him. Instead, Ford is trying to redirect any criticism of him to the Liberals and their 15 years in power.
It’s political jiu-jitsu: using the force of an enemy attack and turning it against your opponent.
The best example of this is Ford’s response to a question about highways in the North. “Mr. Del Duca, you had your chance and you failed,” Ford said. “You were transport minister. You built absolutely nothing.”
Ford got through the 90-minute debate mostly unscathed, so in that sense, it’s mission accomplished for PCs. However, he revealed a few weaknesses that could cost him dearly on the much larger stage of provincial debate.
CBC Radio host Markus Schwabe Morning North asked Ford a simple question about his government’s performance in the COVID-19 pandemic. It was something Ford should have been able to knock out of the park. Instead, he came across as defensive, with a tone that implied how difficult it was to be prime minister in a pandemic.
“We were going around the clock,” Ford said. “I’ll tell you guys, there were some tough times and some really tough decisions.”
After the COVID-19 discussion opened up to other executives, Ford reacted to their criticism as if it hurt him personally, saying he was “shocked and disappointed.” Ford managers will likely want to rethink how it answers questions about the pandemic next Monday.
VIDEO | Doug Ford and Steven Del Duca face off on the highways
The debate also laid bare the extent to which Ford relied on a teleprompter to read his speeches. During the entirety of his opening and closing remarks — what should have been a mere one-minute elevator speech to voters — Ford constantly looked down to read notes.
That probably doesn’t matter to many voters, but it certainly risks leading some of those watching to conclude that Ford’s words aren’t genuinely his own.
The leader of the NDP seemed faltering at the start of Tuesday’s debate. She veered off to talk about doctors and nurses in a question about the municipal property tax system and rambled on in her response to a question about the impact of AirBnB accommodations.
During his 12 years as NDP leader, Horwath sometimes struggled to deliver off-the-cuff remarks in a loud and clear manner, frequently stopping with umms and ahhs.
That’s no obstacle to winning an election: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Q&A with reporters is peppered with umms and ahhs. Still, Horwath would win next Monday to show greater confidence in his understanding of the issues.
Horwath is at her best in debates when she nails Ford and Del Duca for their failures in government.
She achieved this when she criticized Ford for promising “an iron ring around long-term care that never showed up”. Her best shot against Del Duca came when she went through a list of things Liberal governments have done and added: ‘He doesn’t want anybody looking in the rear view mirror because they left a wreck there .”
Horwath will need to create more moments like this if she is to be successful in capturing attention in the provincial debate and increasing her chances of making gains in the final two weeks of the campaign.
Steven Del Duca
Ontario Liberal agents like to say that Del Duca’s opponents underestimate him at their peril. Unlike Ford, Del Duca never relies on a teleprompter, and unlike Horwath, he shows no verbal uncertainty when talking about politics.
Del Duca’s solid grasp of the material means he comes across as fairly unflappable, which isn’t a bad thing in a debate. Still, there’s something about the way he delivers this material that can also feel flat and dispassionate.
Like it or not, emotions are a factor in politics and election campaigns. Del Duca could benefit from appealing to voters’ hearts as well as their heads.
Del Duca’s biggest show of sentimental strength on Tuesday came when he tore up Ford’s plans to build the 413 freeway, directly explaining why voters should care. The Liberal leader described it as “spending $10 billion of your money” on a project that would “destroy the Greenbelt, farmlands and wetlands and save only a handful of commuters in seconds.”
The leader of the Ontario Green Party has the most to gain and the least to lose from these debates, and he is clearly seizing the opportunity.
Schreiner was the troublemaker of the debate in northern Ontario, able to go on the offensive against all the other leaders without becoming the focus of any of their attacks.
A clever tactic used by Schreiner was to confront Ford with a straight yes or no question. Asking Ford whether he will end the wage moderation bill his government has imposed on public sector workers, including nurses, seemed to put the PC leader on his back.
Schreiner has long been known by those who follow Queen’s Park closely as a good communicator. The next debate can only give him a broader profile and a bit of a lead over the province’s Green candidates. Whether that will actually be enough to win additional seats for the Greens remains unclear.