HORWATH PATH – “I’m here today because there’s hope.” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was referring to Ontarians in general with that statement, but it very much applied directly to her. For years, polls have shown Horwath as the most popular of Ontario’s party leaders, but far more so than the party itself. This week she took a decisive step toward translating her own positive vibe into actual votes, releasing a comprehensive election platform aimed at both neutralizing the Liberals and framing the NDP as a legitimate alternative to Doug Ford’s Tories. It is also, notably, unapologetically NDP. Previously, Horwath seemed to be caught in a political limbo between the socialist philosophies of the NDP’s core and the more centrist approach deemed necessary to win power in moderate Ontario. With Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals banking to the left – epitomized by their high-spending Budget-cum-platform – the door was open for Horwath to present a government-heavy plan of her own that doesn’t seem as extreme as it might have in years past. Indeed, what she put on the table is just like the Liberals, only more so. To wit: ‘Pharmacare for Everyone’ providing universal, albeit limited, free prescription drugs; free child-care – with the stipulation that it be at not-for-profit daycare centres – for families earning less than $40,000 and a sliding scale of subsidies for everyone else; 2,000 new hospital beds immediately and annual hospital funding increases of 5.3%; 2,600 new mental health care workers, including 400 in high schools; and of course previously announced pledges like post-secondary grants instead of student loans and returning Hydro One to public hands. All of this to be paid for through deficits, income tax increases for those earning more than $220,000 (few of whom would be inclined to vote NDP anyway) and a luxury tax on vehicles costing more than $90,000 (Maserati owners tending not to be socialists). As Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski commented on the upbeat tone, “The New Democrats know that if anger is the primary emotion driving voters when they cast their ballots, Mr. Ford will win. If there is a desire for something more optimistic, they think, Ms. Horwath could tap into it.”
RUNNING LOW – Neither Ford nor Wynne offered much comment on the NDP platform, but in many ways they played right into Horwath’s strategy by taking their animosity toward one another to new depths. Ford triggered the verbal brawl when he vowed to bring in an outside auditor to examine the province’s books, to root out “answers about how big Kathleen Wynne‘s mess really is.” He bitingly referenced the recent conviction of former senior Liberal staff David Livingston for destroying government documents, sniping, “If Kathleen Wynne tried to pull these kinds of shady tricks in private life, then there would be a few more Liberals joining David in jail.” This infuriated Wynne, who served notice she won’t take such comments passively. “He all but chanted: ‘Lock Her Up,’ talking about me,” Wynne seethed, alluding to Donald Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Lest anyone miss that reference, Wynne spelled it out: “Doug Ford sounds like Donald Trump and that’s because he is like Donald Trump. He believes in [an] ugly, vicious brand of politics that traffics in smears and lies. He’ll say anything about anyone at any time because – just like Trump – it is all about him.” And then she really threw down the gauntlet, citing former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s philosophy of “when they go low, we should go high” as no longer applicable. “I loved that idea when she said it – until we ended up with Donald Trump in the White House. So, I’m sorry, but not again. Not here, not in Ontario … You have to name the behaviour for what it is, because that is how you deal with a bully … He may be Donald Trump, but I’m not Hillary Clinton.” Ford was, of course, unfazed by such sabre-rattling. “I’m not going to make it personal,” he shrugged, then added a personal, “If I did I’d be here for a month.”
AD FUEL TO THE FIRE – On top of the war of words is a rapidly escalating war of ads – another indication that Ontario is now in full campaign mode even if the official writ drop is still a couple of weeks away. Wynne’s Liberals launched a million-dollar advertising blitz this week, saturating print, radio, TV and online outlets with anti-Ford messaging. Dubbed “The Real Doug Ford,” the ad campaign aims to dispel the plain-folks persona that enamours Ford Nation. Liberal campaign co-chair Deb Matthews offered hints at the public opinion research behind the strategy, noting that a lesson from the U.S. Presidential campaign was to focus on policies rather than personality, and that when voters (presumably in focus groups) learn more about Ford’s views they like him less. Hence the ad copy painting Ford as wanting to give tax cuts to wealthy corporations, curtail women’s choices on abortion, fire nurses and teachers, and turn a blind eye to polluters. (In response to the ads, the Tories coined a new refrain to add to their arsenal, chiding that the Liberals have nothing to offer but “fear and smear.”) In previous campaigns, the anti-Tory ads might have come from the Working Families Coalition – freeing up the LIBs to espouse a more positive tone in their own ads – but restrictions on third-party advertising have largely thwarted such external participation. There is still some, however, notably the TV spots created by the pro-Tory Ontario Proud, a humourous take on the old K-Tel album commercials, flogging “Wynne’s Greatest Hits … 15 years of scandal for one absurdly high price.”
PEOPLE MOVER – While the other leaders have to show up at Queen’s Park at least occasionally, without a seat in the Legislature Ford is free to roam the province. He is doing just that, now in the campaign bus he unveiled this week. Emblazoned on the side of the bus is the campaign slogan Ford has landed on: “FOR THE PEOPLE.” It’s not quite the “Stop the Gravy Train” catchphrase that helped propel his late brother Rob Ford into the Toronto mayoralty eight years ago (and is very much a theme in much of Doug’s daily discourse) or Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (again, not dissimilar to Ford’s dig-us-out-of-a-hole posture). But Ford feels it’s right for him, explaining, “Everywhere I’m going, I’m hearing ‘Doug, do it for the people.’”
HARD PROMISES – Ford has made it clear he won’t be putting forward the kind of platform Horwath did – in her case, a 97-page opus – but he is dropping election commitments along the campaign trail. Aside from promising to bring in private auditors, Ford also announced that if he is Premier, minimum wage earners will not have to pay any income taxes. He has previously pledged to freeze the minimum wage at $14/hour (cancelling a planned increase to $15/hour next year) but touted the income tax savings at about $800 a year on average. Horwath scoffed that exemptions and credits for most low-wage earners mean they don’t pay income tax anyway, dismissing the promise as “bumper-sticker talk.”
CAMPAIGN AND SUFFERING – Noticing that the province has shifted into campaign mode, former PC MPP – and current Ford campaign advisor – Frank Klees tried to make hay out of it, calling the Liberals’ post-Budget rollout “scandalous,” accusing them of “shamelessly campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime.” Wynne brushed off the accusations, arguing the Budget blitz is no different than any other year – or any other government. Her Press Secretary Andrea Ernesaks went further, issuing a pot-calling-the-kettle-black statement. “As the leader of the Opposition, Ford relies on a large number of staff at the legislature who are paid by the taxpayer,” Ernesaks wrote. “He has not fired those people or moved to pay for them, as a wealthy man, out of his own pocket.”
CAMBRIDGE OF SIGHS – Last weekend’s ice storm forced the Tories to postpone their nomination meeting in Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas (it’s been rescheduled for April 24), meaning they’ll have to wait to finally bring closure to what has been a troubled nomination process fraught with allegations of cheating, lawsuits and police investigations. And it looks like their nomination drama isn’t over in Cambridge either. Belinda Karahalios narrowly won the PC nod in Cambridge, which could be problematic in that she is the wife of Jim Karahalios – who was stripped of his membership and sued by the party. Jim had been a thorn in the side of former PC Leader Patrick Brown, spearheading Axe the Carbon Tax and Take Back Our Party campaigns.
IN THE HOUSE
Labour Minister Kevin Flynn introduced Bill 53, the Government Contract Wages Act, to establish minimum pay rates under government contracts for workers in construction, building cleaning and security.
FOR THE RECORD
“Sometimes they’ll win a few votes, but there’s also a lot of buyer’s remorse here. Certainly you can see that in the United States now.”
California Governor Jerry Brown – in Ontario to meet with the Premier on their joint cap-and-trade program with Quebec – decrying PC Leader Doug Ford’s vow to eliminate carbon pricing altogether. As a side note, the Liberals wanted Gov. Brown to address the Ontario Legislature while he was in town, but that would have required all-party approval and the Tories nixed it.
“In the North, trailers are more accepted than buses.”
Northern Ontario Party Leader Trevor Holliday, quipping about the old trailer serving as his mobile campaign headquarters.
“‘Separatist’ is negative. We’re not leaving the country. We’re not proposing to leave the country. We’re creating the idea of, instead of just saying we’re Northern Ontario, let us be Northern Ontario. If the people of the North want it, then why wouldn’t we want to try? Is it impossible? Nothing’s impossible.”
Holliday, with a more serious explanation of his fledgling party’s aims.
“Unorthodox, outrageous, irreverent, bombastic, ostentatious, loud, dramatic, incredibly funny, sometimes profane, excitable, intelligent, compassionate, likable — he had an infectious grin, of course — wide-eyed, quick-witted and politically incorrect. There used to be a show on television called Politically Incorrect. Stockwell would have been the person who could host that easily, because he was politically incorrect, but in a very nice way.”
Veteran Liberal MPP Jim Bradley, paying tribute to the late Chris Stockwell in the Legislature. Stockwell, the former PC MPP and Speaker, died in February.
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