The hardest blows in the Ontario leaders’ debate came from the candidate who had the least chance of winning the provincial election.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, who entered the debate with the least to lose, unsettled Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford in their direct exchanges with an approach that was both disarming and pointed.
Even if Schreiner’s performance does not translate into additional seats for his party on June 2, it could still influence the overall election outcome if it gives Green candidates enough of a lead in the polls to make the difference in close races. That would probably not be a good thing for the Liberals or the NDP.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath were expected to make Monday night a turning point in the campaign. Each was on a mission to prove to voters who don’t want Ford getting a second term that only they can defeat the PCs.
It is far from clear that either accomplished this.
Schreiner seizes the opportunity
For Schreiner, his party’s first-ever appearance on a province-wide televised debate provided a chance to make an impression on the largest audience he’s ever had. Schreiner seized the opportunity, speaking clearly and digestibly and capitalizing on his outsider status in an effort to woo voters who are cynical of other, more established parties.
One of his digs at Ford: “He’ll roll out red carpets for the world’s Amazons and the world’s big box stores, but when it comes to supporting local farmers, he’ll pave their farmland.”
In response to Ford saying his government “cared” for nurses, Schreiner confronted Ford with a series of powerful questions.
“Mr. Ford, have you spoken to a nurse lately? Have you spoken to a nurse about the disrespect she feels, how overworked, underpaid and undervalued she is? How she feels insulted to be called a hero and to have her salary cut for being frozen?”
As Schreiner continued, the split-screen format of the debate also showed Ford, and his discomfort was palpable.
Ford keeps his cool, especially
Meanwhile, Ford mostly accomplished what he needed to do in the debate, which was not to lose his temper.
Ford’s goal was “not to hurt you or your party’s brand,” said Shakir Chambers, director of Earnscliffe Strategies who worked on the 2018 PC campaign. debate on CBC Radio, Chambers said Ford had pivoted to talk about what he wanted to talk about, rather than taking the bait from his rivals.
Ford actually took the bait a few times, perhaps most dramatically when Del Duca criticized him for his upbringing.
The Liberal leader called Ford’s record an education embarrassment and said he should be ashamed of himself. Ford’s response was to describe Stephen Lecce as the best education minister ever.
Liberal strategists told me that Del Duca would use the debate to show Ontarians that Ford isn’t really on the side of the little guys.
Yet in his first one-on-one with Ford, on the subject of economy and affordability, Del Duca never mentioned the PC leader’s early decisions to allow big-box stores to stay. opened while small businesses had to close.
Del Duca lists chips
Liberal campaign advisers recognized that Del Duca needed to bring more passion to the debate stage than he had shown before. For a guy whose emotional tenor has typically fallen between flat and calm, Del Duca showed relative fire in his stomach on Monday night. But was that enough to galvanize weak New Democrat voters to rush to the Liberals?
Del Duca has sometimes listed its platform’s chips in such a rapid fashion that it’s hard to see how that would appeal to the average voter. He was also forced to spend far more time on the defensive than he would have liked, forced to fact-check Ford on the fly when the PC chief stretched the truth with some of his depictions of the past record and of the current Liberal platform.
For people who have wondered why the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been a bigger issue in the campaign, the debate on this topic provided one of the most memorable moments of the evening.
Pressed by Del Duca about the government’s April 2021 decision to close playgrounds and give police extraordinary powers, Ford’s tone turned defensive.
“Guys, everything was perfect? No, it wasn’t perfect. But if there’s a problem, I’ll go up there, I made a change, I apologized,” Ford said, then turned to Del Duca.
“For two and a half years, literally 24/7, I’ve been working on this pandemic. It’s easy to stay away when you haven’t had to make the tough decisions I had to take,” Ford said. .
Del Duca fired back, “Mr. Ford, respectfully, this is the job you signed four years ago.”
Some striking lines from Horwath
Meanwhile, Horwath seemed to struggle to craft those hard-hitting lines that will be picked up in TV reports and amplified on social media, a key measure of debate success.
Horwath broke through by charging Ford on education. “Your cuts and chaos have destabilized our education system,” she said. “Ask any parent and they’ll tell you the same thing. You can’t upgrade to a better education system.”
But the force of Horwath’s attacks on the night was also diluted by his need to go after Del Duca, in the NDP-Liberal war of attrition for progressive voters.
“I understand why you don’t want to talk about the 2018 election because you only retained seven seats,” Horwath told Del Duca as the 90-minute debate drew to a close.
“Every time you attack me, like you did last year, Doug Ford smiles,” Del Duca told Horwath.
Ford and his campaign team are probably smiling a lot right now.
It’s because just over two weeks before election day, he has a lead that the CBC News Ontario Poll Tracker puts at eight percentage points, his two main rivals roughly split the anti-Ford vote and neither of them shone as brightly as the leader of the Green Party in the debate.