The Ontario debate: bland works overtime
It's such a nice province
(Note: At the bottom of this post, an update about how this newsletter is going. Plus some tunes. — pw)
That was better. And it was so easy! The consortium that put together Monday’s big Ontario provincial election debate avoided the decisions that made the previous week’s Conservative leadership debate such a goat farm. There were no props, no sound effects, no audience to shush — note to future generations: if you want the audience to be quiet, don’t invite one — and above all, blessedly, fewer questions. Therefore there could be longer answers. See how that works? It’s arithmetic.
The field of battle being thus relatively clear of impediments, the combatants squared off and delivered — pleasant thoughts, mostly.
“Everyday folks in this province should be able to afford everyday life,” Andrea Horwath, leading the NDP for a fourth election, said.
“I believe in balance, moderation and responsibility,” Steven Del Duca, brand new leading the third-place Liberals, said.
“We’re building a med school out in Brampton,” Conservative premier Doug Ford said. “We haven’t seen a med school in decades!”
“Mr. Ford, have you talked to a nurse lately?” Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party, said. This does not actually square with my “everyone being nice” frame, but I’m stuck with it because on reviewing my notes I discover I didn’t write down anything else Schreiner said.
It wasn’t all oatmeal and throw pillows. For a few minutes near the middle, there was an extended interlude of cross-talk as the leaders got tired of message discipline and decided to test the indulgence of hall monitors Steve Paikin, from TVOntario, and Althia Raj, from the Toronto Star. Paikin had threatened to cut off the microphones of leaders who spoke out of turn, a policy I heartily endorse, but if he implemented it I missed it. No matter. After a few minutes the leaders got tired of cacophony and went back to waiting their turns.
There were some areas of sharp disagreement. Perhaps important disagreement, and we’ll get to that. But I think there was a point to the determined blandness all around. I think each leader has arrived, separately, at similar conclusions about what moves Ontario voters.
An anecdote. A few days into the 2011 federal election, I remarked to a bureau colleague that Stephen Harper, the incumbent prime minister, looked like hell. He was slouching, he was gloomy, he wasn’t articulating clearly, you’d swear he didn’t even want to be there. My colleague, John Geddes, said in effect: Yes, but where’s he spending most of his time? In the suburbs outside Toronto and the countryside further beyond. And who won big there in the past? Mike Harris, Jean Chrétien, Bill Davis. Different political philosophies, different times, but leaders with similar affect.
Ontario votes for dull. Or rather, it mistrusts sharp. Stockwell Day in 2000 was too hot emotionally, too nervy. He blew his only chance. Harris and Harper were consistently effective at making their opponents blow their stacks, which put those opponents at the wrong end of the hot-cool spectrum. “Bland works,” Bill Davis used to say, and it is absolutely Ontario’s most overused political cliché, but I can’t say he was wrong.
When I interviewed Del Duca in March, he sounded like someone who had learned Ontario’s hot-cool lessons and was determined to apply them. He used to be Kathleen Wynne’s attack dog, but he insisted he was hanging up his collar and wouldn’t bequeath it to anyone else. He has not kept this vow all the way — there’s a website designed to drive up contrast between the Liberals and Conservatives on abortion rights — but we’re still some distance from the campaigns of relentless pounding we’ve sometimes seen in Ontario.
This debate was the logical extension of this tactical decision by every party. Leaders disagreed at times but they came determined not to feud. All of them. If you had found yourself trapped in an elevator with the four of them for an hour and a half — a scenario that was easy to imagine, because the debate’s wee set inside TVO’s Toronto studios was so cozy — you’d eventually exit with no clear memory of their appearance or policies. I think the men were wearing suits. Maybe one of them had thin lips?
The risk, for everyone who wasn’t Doug Ford, was that if everyone coasts, he coasts to victory. Monday’s Abacus poll shows the Conservative vote is soft. But Liberals and NDP remain far behind — and far from settling a “progressive primary” among voters who don’t want Ford re-elected, the second- and third-place parties are getting closer in support. A trend that would tend to encourage a Conservative re-election.
Horwath, whose continued tenure as NDP leader after three consecutive defeats is surprising, was the same Horwath I’ve been checking in on throughout her 13 years on the job: serious, amiable, preoccupied mostly with social policy, and not great at defining either Ford’s weaknesses (she did keep referring to his “buddies” the developers) or her own strengths. She likes to tell long anecdotes about individual Ontarians who’ve been left out by government policy. I’ve seen her do it on the campaign trail. It can be very effective. In even a well-run debate, however, she didn’t have room to let her parables breathe.
Del Duca got his message on his own policies out cleanly, probably drove a lot of eyeballs to his party’s website by repeating its URL a bunch of times, and mostly kept his calm. Near the end, though, he seemed to realize he was running out of chances to punch through, so he decided to do a little punching. “Your record on public education, Mr. Ford, is an embarrassment,” he said. “And you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” He carried on in this vein, and by the end of that old-fashioned streak, he had worked his way around to hammering Ford on healthcare, not education. I think it was a slip. I think the tone — Liberal daddy is very cross — mattered more to Del Duca at that moment than the content.
The question is whether a campaign that’s half-over, with growing numbers of voters set in their decision, was meaningfully shaken up by this congenial chat in a freight elevator. It’s hard to believe it would be. Maybe the most significant event was that a lot of voters got to listen to Del Duca, who remains poorly known to Ontarians and, so far, unloved. If they didn’t like what they saw — a guy who keeps mentioning his daughters and seems eager to avoid all discussion of events before the 2018 election, when his party actually formed Ontario’s government — he’s toast. If they decide, on the other hand, that he brought a lot of specific policy and apparently has a functioning website, he might start to move.
Things will get really interesting if Ford loses his majority. Then the NDP and Liberals will have to decide whether they can stand each other enough to deprive the Conservatives of a second mandate. But it’s not clear that Ford is doomed to keep losing support, so minority-legislature confidence scenarios might yet remain in the realm of fiction. The hardest thing for Ontarians who don’t like Ford to understand is that lots of Ontarians do, and what may be even more baffling to anti-Ford voters, that a lot of Ontarians don’t mind him. But politics gets to be mysterious sometimes.
You’re in good company
This morning this newsletter passed 5,000 subscribers. It took 27 days to reach that level of support. The number continues to grow steadily. I could not be more grateful for your interest.
The number above includes both paying and free subscribers. Paying subscribers will always be a minority. I am delighted to have both kinds of reader on board. Paid subscriptions support the work I do here and are already making some travel possible. Down the line, every paid subscriber will increase the scope of the work I can do here. But free subscribers read these posts too, and newsmakers are starting to be very interested in taking calls from a guy with a growing, engaged and often influential audience on his side.
Next week I’ll start including posts that are available only to paying subscribers. I think I’ve shown I’m doing work that’s worth supporting. You can decide whether you agree. Much of the new material here will keep being free, and everything I’ve written to date will stay free. That way you can share it with friends and tell them where to find more. Like this:
I am so happy to be writing for a community of thoughtful readers. Thank you.
And I’m lost in this night
The other night at the Juno Awards, the Toronto-born mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo won the award for Best Classical Album (Solo) for her Deutsche Grammophon debut recording, enargeia. It’s not close to being your typical opera recital. D’Angelo performs music by 400 years of women composers, including this haunting setting of a tale from Greek mythology by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Enjoy.