KITCHENER - After pleading her case for five weeks and fending off inherited scandals, it has come down to this:
In the campaign homestretch, Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne must peel away NDP votes to prevent her feared Tory apocalypse.
Oh, she dutifully cultivates her Liberal base at every stop on the campaign trail. But to survive (or even thrive) on June 12, she needs New Democrats to join her in beating back Tory Leader Tim Hudak.
This isn’t the first time a Liberal leader has reached out to progressives on election eve, whether out of desperation or calculation, to thwart a looming Tory victory. But this time, NDP supporters — be they fearful of Hudak or frustrated with their own leader, Andrea Horwath — face a fateful choice.
“Today, I want to speak to a very specific group of voters,” Wynne tells her Liberal supporters at every stop as she talks over their heads to New Democrats outside the room.
“If you have voted NDP in the past, or are thinking of voting NDP this election, I am speaking to you,” she says, before laying out a stark warning:
“A vote for Andrea Horwath is a vote for Tim Hudak.”
Cynical? Desperate? Fear-mongering? A naked appeal for strategic voting to help the Liberals in tight three-way races that would otherwise fall to the Tories?
In fact, Wynne is going further than traditional strategic voting. She argues that any NDP vote in any riding across Ontario is a wasted vote for progressives, because Horwath rejected the most progressive budget in memory when triggering the spring election — and has offered only populist pocketbook gimmicks instead of serious social justice.
“That is how far the NDP has fallen. It’s not the party that it was.”
It is a risky and at times off-putting pitch. The Liberal campaign has gone deeply negative in its final days.
Wynne is not at her most uplifting when talking down rivals or painting post-election, post-apocalyptic pictures of Tory rule. She warns of 100,000 public servants fired if Hudak wins power (In fairness, he plans on a blend of attrition, retirement, contracting out and yes, sacking, over four years).
But after enduring withering attacks from her Tory and NDP rivals, the Liberal leader has sidelined the positive campaigning of the early days: Talk of her spring budget plan — with its new Ontario pension, wage hikes for the working poor, a new surtax on the rich — has been overtaken by her demonization of the Tories and dismissal of the New Democrats.
Now she has pivoted — pouncing on the Tory storyline and poaching from the NDP vote pool. It makes for a mixed message and confusing campaign narrative.
But politics is about timing and opportunity. There is no denying the potential upside from those putdowns — first when Hudak gave her the gift of targeting 100,000 public service jobs, and latterly when Horwath lost her way.
That she has deployed her hardball tactics so close to the finish line reflects the unforgiving calculus of election strategists on all sides. New Democrats are fighting back furiously against her vote-stealing tactics — a bitter taste of their own medicine after twisting themselves out of shape to leapfrog over the Liberals toward the centre.
Horwath responded to Wynne’s mockery with alacrity: Answering charges that she’d deviated from the legacy of former federal NDP leaders Jack Layton and Ed Broadbent, Horwath promptly posed bedside Layton’s statue at Toronto’s ferry terminal the next day, and solicited a sudden endorsement from Broadbent (never mind that he once excoriated Layton’s successor, Thomas Mulcair — insisting the NDP must remain “a left-of-centre party” — but is now giving Horwath a timely pass).
As expedient as Wynne’s appeal for progressive voters might seem, it doesn’t ring entirely false. Doubtless Ontario’s dire fiscal straits will force her to recalibrate post-election, despite her sunny claims that she is on target to balance the budget in three years without staff cuts. While critics complain that Liberals routinely “campaign from the left and govern from the right,” Wynne wears her policies more persuasively.
Going negative may not be Wynne’s finest hour, but at zero hour it’s not a bad idea for her to rally progressives against their presumed Tory peril. Will it work?
Before taking the stage at a Kitchener rally to make her case, the arguments are laid out on her behalf by outgoing Mayor Carl Zehr, who tells more than 200 supporters crammed into the hall what they already know:
“I believe this is a two-way race between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives,” Zehr begins. “When voting on Thursday we have to be using our heads instead of our emotions.”
Zehr ran for the Liberals decades ago, but hasn’t endorsed them since. This time, he does.
Just in time for the campaign’s dying days. For the Liberals, as much as the Tories and New Democrats, it’s do or die.