NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wore a relaxed smile Friday as she declared the demise of Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal minority government. And offered herself up as Ontario’s premier-in-waiting.
But Tim Hudak’s grin was even bigger.
For two years, the Progressive Conservative leader has been goading Horwath to do his bidding — by triggering an election. Ever since her New Democrats won the balance of power in the last campaign, Hudak has mocked Horwath for propping up the Liberals.
Now, Hudak will have his way. Belatedly, we will have fresh elections on June 12 to clear the air of scandal — on his (Tory) terms, his topics, his timing.
The campaign not only gives the PCs their big chance to win back power. It’s also an opportunity to erase the budget plans unveiled by Wynne Thursday, possibly the most progressive Ontario budget since the NDP held power under Bob Rae two decades ago.
Perhaps that’s why Ontario’s biggest private sector unions publicly beseeched the NDP to back the budget. It wasn’t just the welfare increases or wage hikes for the working poor, but the promise of pension improvements that organized labour has been pushing long and hard for.
Horwath belittled the budget as a grab bag that included “the kitchen sink” — notwithstanding the annual laundry list of NDP demands issued by Horwath for the last three budgets (most of which the Liberals went along with). A curious condemnation — accusing the Liberals of trying to do too much — that sounded more like a Progressive Conservative critique.
But this is the new New Democratic Party (nNDP), a once-progressive movement remade as a populist party in Horwath’s pragmatic image:
More scandal-mongering than substantive. More anti-tax than the Tories. And more fixated on the putative gravy train panacea than Rob Ford himself (Horwath’s two favourite talking points are high salaries for public servants and chauffeurs for cabinet ministers).
But the New Democrats aren’t the only ones who are reinventing themselves in this campaign. While Horwath’s New Democrats are trying to out-Liberal the Liberals, Wynne’s Liberals are moving closer to the unions and working with anti-poverty groups. And while Hudak’s Tories have sworn off “corporate welfare” (a phrase popularized by the NDP decades ago), the Liberals are still relying on job-creation grants to secure new investment by business.
Amidst the confusing role reversals, the three major parties will try to sharpen their messages on the campaign trail and in their advertising pitches:
• Hudak’s Tories will sell themselves as the party to sweep away scandal, clean up the books, wipe out red ink and cut big labour down to size. Oh, and a party that can be trusted.
• Horwath’s New Democrats will be selling, well, more or less the same thing. Instead of cutting spending, they will promise to spend smarter — eliminating the gravy without cutting to the bone. Oh, and a party that can be trusted too.
• Wynne’s Liberals will pitch themselves as the builders in the middle, building bridges with both labour and business, and investing in future infrastructure without cutting core services. Oh, and a party with a new, more trustworthy leader.
But the pitches may not hold up for long. Hudak’s low approval ratings will hurt his appeal for trust, along with memories of Mike Harris cutbacks. Horwath will try to smother the ghost of the 1990-’95 NDP government. And after 15 months in power, Wynne will try to distance her Liberals from McGuinty’s decade-long premiership.
The costly cancellation of gas-fired power plants will loom over all this. Do people still care, and if so, will they switch their votes — or not vote at all? The NDP has cited the gas plants as a major reason for triggering an election. The Tories have made the costly scandal a signature issue, and seem best positioned to harvest support from disgruntled voters (Hudak needled Horwath on Friday for waiting two years to join his call to dump the Liberals).
But in a six-week campaign that kicks off with a cathartic airing of gas plants, will voters stay focused on an issue that dates from the election of 2011 (when candidates from all three parties called for the cancellation of a Mississauga plant)? Will the election of 2014 really be fought over a footnote to 2011?
Elections are wonderful exercises in democratic consultation — easy to call but hard to predict. No one knows how this campaign will unfold, or how it will culminate.
But at the end of the day — or about 41 days of campaigning — will voters cast their ballots by choosing between the ghosts of McGuinty, Harris and Rae? By June 12 they are more likely to look forward, by taking a hard look at what’s on offer from Wynne, Hudak and Horwath.