THUNDER BAY, ONT. - After three weeks on the back burner, gas plants are back at the front of the campaign agenda.
Keen to power up a campaign seemingly at risk of going down in flames, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath did everything in her power to relocate those ill-fated gas-fired power plants from Mississauga and Oakville to a Thunder Bay banquet hall Monday. She may have succeeded in reigniting a debate on scandal and corruption, but it won’t win the day.
Here up north, there weren’t any questions from the floor about gas plants. That didn’t stop Horwath from trying to transform an infamous footnote to the 2011 campaign into the main event of the 2014 election.
As a headline-grabbing strategy, it certainly put Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne on the defensive. As a warm-up for the main June 3 televised debate, it was a revealing preview of Horwath on the attack — refusing to look at her opponent throughout the 60-minute debate, staring unsmilingly at the audience whenever Wynne spoke.
For most of the northerners in the room, Horwath’s detour down south failed to resonate. She performed like an opposition leader who heads Ontario’s third party, not a premier-in-waiting with a distinctive, progressive vision of her own for the province.
No matter. The NDP leader wasn’t trying to win over the local mayors and native leaders who had come to hear the major party leaders debate northern policy. She was talking over their heads, via the planeloads of Toronto media in attendance, to the broader electorate.
With Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak a no-show at the northern debate, Horwath effectively took his place at the podium by stoking his customary gas plant talking points like a Tory stalking horse: over and over during the one-our debate, she returned to the theme of corruption at the core of a Liberal party led by Wynne:
“The first step is to clean up the corruption,” Horwath intoned. “Say ‘No’ to a corrupt Liberal party.”
Cheered by her headline-generating hardball attacks, Horwath’s handlers were triumphant. Speaking to reporters later, the NDP leader brushed aside questions about whether a change in Liberal leadership from Dalton McGuinty to Wynne early last year has reduced the impact of those attacks.
“Liberals are Liberals are Liberals,” she persisted.
Can Horwath succeed in making Wynne wear McGuinty’s premiership, where Hudak has so far failed?
In Thunder Bay’s Valhalla Inn, the attacks seemed to fall flat — discordant and disconnected from audience questions about the massive Ring of Fire mineral development, youth job creation, industrial development and deficit reduction.
Wynne’s answers were straightforward if unexciting, lacking the fire and brimstone of Horwath’s attacks. She repeated her past apologies about the mistakes of the gas plants.
The Liberal leader was especially weak on a question about deficit reduction, saying only that this was a time for continued investments, then pivoting to attack the absent Hudak for his proposed reduction of 100,000 public service positions, which could jolt the northern economy.
Horwath was equally unpersuasive when she professed fealty to balanced budgets, saying: “That is the history of my political party, frankly,” she offered, seemingly forgetting the 1990-95 NDP era.
Horwath harped on high hydro rates compared to neighbouring Quebec and Manitoba (there was no mention of any NDP plans to relocate those provinces’ massive endowments of fast-flowing rivers). She promised the NDP would stop wasting government funds on partisan advertising (ignoring a law that requires the auditor general to vet all TV and print ads for partisanship). Unlike Horwath, Wynne turned to watch her opponent. She seemed taken aback by the force of the NDP attacks.
Northern debates get little television coverage, but that won’t keep strategists from all three parties from poring over the video for lessons to be learned in advance of the major debate broadcast by the big networks on June 3. They will try to assess the effectiveness of Horwath’s performance as the NDP shifted to scandal-mongering mode. And wondering about the impact of those high-octane attacks — not just Wynne’s laconic responses, but the audience’s overall indifference.
Can the 2014 election debate be won by Hudak and Horwath hammering away at the aftermath of the 2011 campaign? Will the history of the gas plants debacle dominate the June 3 debate? Or will people want to know more about what the rival candidates have in mind for the province’s future, now that all three parties have unveiled their platforms?
Stay tuned. The good news is that this time Hudak’s Tory handlers have confirmed his attendance.